Rugby Union: Tigers grind onwards

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Leicester 25

Saracens 18

BY TAKING another bound, albeit a rather joyless one, towards the league title yesterday, Leicester have surely carried the prize beyond the reach of the chasing pack. They cannot feel relaxed, but not only will their challengers have to display unerring consistency in the final stretch, they will have to raise their scoring rates appreciably if they are to overhaul the leaders. Nevertheless, it is as well for Leicester that they have points in the bank. Against a Saracens side depleted by injury and lamentably predictable, the Tigers often appeared weary and careworn.

It was a poor spectacle as a contest and it was scarred in the last minute when the Saracens' prop Roberto Grau appeared to head-butt Craig Joiner. The Leicester centre went down and the reaction of his team-mates and the crowd was one of outraged fury, but Grau escaped dismissal and instead was given a stern warning by the referee.

The Leicester forwards were always much too strong, yet for much of the game they went through the motions, safe in the knowledge that with Saracens regularly infringing and with Tim Stimpson kicking the goals with equal regularity, defeat was never a possibility.

The stabilising influence of Joel Stransky is sorely missed. Without him, Leicester's game plan is ominously insecure. Pat Howard, his stand- in, is comfortable enough with the ball in his hands but whenever he transfers it to his boot he becomes a compulsive wreck. It is as unsettling to his pack as it is to the backs and yesterday Leicester played without any kind of fluency.

The arrival of Austin Healey at the start of the second half injected more life and purpose into the Leicester play which was just as well. The first quarter can be dismissed with the bald facts that Stimpson kicked three penalties for Leicester against three kicked for Saracens by Gavin Johnson. The quality of the play, fractured by infringement and error, was dire. The defences on both sides were solid enough but given the lack of creativity in attack this was hardly a compliment.

Immediately following Johnson's third penalty, however, Jon Stuart broke the tedium and Sarries' back-line, with an explosive run. Leon Lloyd was stopped in his tracks but the ball was re-cycled for Martin Corry to plunge over by the posts, giving Stimpson an easy conversion.

Corry's advance this season has been at the expense of his opposite number yesterday, Tony Diprose. But Diprose is now playing in a mediocre pack and is flanked by a player whose talent is fading fast. It is sad to see that Francois Pienaar is a shadow of the player who led his country to victory in the World Cup four years ago. He is loitering, no doubt with intent, but yesterday to no purpose whatsoever. On a number of occasions his challenges were contemptuously brushed aside and he was too often conspicuous by his absence at the breakdown. His was principally a watching brief, and, although he still has a mighty contribution to make to the game, his days in the front line are surely numbered.

The most notable feature of what was an eminently forgettable first half came in injury time when Johnson pulled his penalty kick wide of the post. Of the 11 attempts on goal, it was the first miss. The goal- kickers at least were on form. Johnson made amends for his lapse with his fifth penalty 12 minutes into the second half, which, in spite of the disparity in class between the sides, kept Saracens in touch.

But Leicester's strength was by now beginning to wear them down. Twice Saracens, with commendable resolve, held Leicester drives from line-outs but following a series of stamina-sapping scrummages which trapped Saracens in their 22 for long periods, Stimpson kicked his sixth penalty.

Saracens' response was brave and positive. The introduction of fresh legs to the pack gave them the advantage in the closing minutes, by which time Leicester were operating at reduced pace. It was perhaps a measure of the wretchedly poor quality of the rugby that there was no discernible difference to the naked eye. Johnson, not to be outdone by Stimpson, kicked his sixth penalty a couple of minutes from time which made the Saracens' decision a few minutes earlier to decline a kick for goal all the more curious.

The sorry tale was best summed up when Healey broke clean away, but with players lining up outside him the final pass dribbled along the ground and into touch. Grau's rush of blood to the head was the final straw. Roll on the end of the season.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, C Joiner, J Stuart, D Lougheed; P Howard, J (A Healey, 40); G Rowntree (D Jelley, 65), R Cockerill (D West, 65), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, L Moody, M Corry, N Back.

Saracens: G Johnson; R Thirlby, R Constable, K Sorrell, B Daniel (J Thomson, 69); A Penaud, M Olsen (M Powell, 66); R Grau, G Chuter, B Reidy (P Wallace, 66), K Chesney, C Yandell, R Hill, T Diprose, F Pienaar (capt, B Cole, 66).

Referee: C White (Gloucs).