Rugby Union: Tigers catch on late as Salmon seeks lure: Neither closest rivals nor the champions manage to hit peak form

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The Tigers' hunt of Bath goes on and on - as does Harlequins' perennial quest for league performances and a position suitable to a club of repute. While Leicester are two points off the lead, Quins are an embarrassingly distant fourth, 14 behind Bath.

Without especial difficulty, Leicester won 25-13 at The Stoop, their first victory in a Courage match there, and though their points-difference disadvantage behind the champions extended from four to 16, they had feared it might be worse as Bath were playing Newcastle Gosforth.

It was still a frustration because Leicester's superiority was such that they really should have won by much more. As Jamie Salmon, Quins' team manager, put it: 'At 17-0, it was a 30-pointer.' That it was not was down to the unwontedly stubborn streak Quins have been developing.

Even so, Salmon's displeasure is intense at Quins' endless failure to contribute anything much to the First Division, let alone threaten to win it. Two thirds, a seventh and three eighths amount to a dismal six seasons. And in the seventh, all Quins' eggs are familiarly in the cup basket with a home semi-final to come next Saturday against Bath.

There is a credibility problem and Salmon acknowledges it. 'I don't give a fig about the cup,' he said. 'Until people in this club realise that the league comes first we will never get on the correct footing.' In fact, he does care about the cup but he wishes it went hand in hand with the league as it does for Bath and Leicester, for whom the England distraction is as great as it is for Quins.

Other clubs, not least Bath themselves, would heartily endorse Salmon's stricture because it would mean that in their First Division fixtures against the likes of Leicester, Quins were always seen to be giving it their best shot. Just as suspicious Tigers would like to feel the same when Quins play at Bath next month.

At least Salmon, a curiosity as a former England and New Zealand centre (who played in Harlequins' 1988 cup-winning side of lustrous memory), is doing his best. But, honest fellow that he is, he recognises that he will not necessarily succeed - not even with next season's acquisition of the well-regarded Emerging England scrum- half, Rob Kitchin, from Bristol.

The fault may, Salmon confessed after this latest defeat, be woven into the fabric of the club. 'It may well be that we don't have the mental capacity to change it. It may well be that our guys are City slickers and after a hard day at the office find it hard to come down here and do the business. Maybe we should recruit from the M4 corridor and get some farmers.'

Peter Winterbottom was not from the M4 corridor, but he was a farmer and Quins helped turn him into not only England's most- capped flanker but also a City slicker. So it can be done. On the other hand, to go in at two-thirds strength against a team of such calibre and in such form as Leicester was to invite defeat.

The invitation was accepted. It was Quins' heaviest in this season's championship - not difficult as none of the seven others had been by more than five points. Salmon remarked that his side no longer 'throw in the towel': a rather modest cause for celebration, one would have thought.

On Saturday, he advised in advance that Quins were especially fired up, having been warned that selection to face Bath depended on performance against Leicester. You could never have surmised this from the 17 points they conceded in the first 28 minutes. A line-out maul drove Neil Back over for the first try inside three minutes and a free-kick move involving Aadel Kardooni and Richard Cockerill undid Quins for Stuart Potter to score the second.

Though Gavin Thompson's astute kick into space and a kindly bounce immediately gave Jason Keyter a try for Quins, Leicester would have re- established their lead but for a last- ditch tackle on Wayne Kilford at the end of a sumptuous passing sequence through 27 pairs of hands.

And so to bed. At least that was what Leicester looked as if they were then doing. For 25 minutes of the second half, after Paul Challinor had added a penalty to his conversion, the margin was down to a converted try and, with Leicester being caned by the Argentinian referee, the extra points they so badly needed were slow to materialise.

'Our Argentinian friend evened it up a bit,' Salmon agreed, while Leicester were left to wonder what the consequence of their incompatibility with Efraim Sklar might ultimately be. 'Things are difficult enough when the referee has to give an explanation in English to our players,' Ian Smith, the Leicester coach, sighed.

This said more about his players' comprehension than Sklar's command of the language, which was good enough for him to be a 1991 World Cup referee. The coach's more pertinent point was this: 'Everyone is more than a little surprised that for such an important game they chose to put in a referee who was going to have difficulty communicating.

'It didn't affect the result but there were a couple of decisions that may have made a difference to the points - and a few points' difference could be the difference between Bath or Leicester winning the league.' The penalty count ended emphatically at 26-13 in Harlequins' favour.

Finally, Leicester made it safe in the last minute when they kicked a penalty for touch rather than goal and mauled the ensuing line-out for a try by their forward colossus, Dean Richards. But the gloomy dressing-room betrayed the sense that a critical chance had been lost. Now, if the title is to be the Tigers', they have not only to win at Bath on 9 April but do so by an unimaginable margin.

Harlequins: Try Keyter; Conversion Challinor; Penalties Challinor 2. Leicester: Tries Back, Potter, Richards; Conversions Harris 2; Penalties Harris 2.

Harlequins: K Bray; D O'Leary, J Keyter, G Thompson, C Madderson; P Challinor, C Luxton; S Brown, B Moore, A Mullins (capt), A Snow, P Thresher, M Russell, T Coker, M Pepper.

Leicester: W Kilford; S Hackney, S Potter, L Boyle, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Referee: E Sklar (Buenos Aires).

(Photograph omitted)