Rugby Union: Tigers home in on title: Leicester 31 London Irish 10

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER this compelling contest lacked - and there were times when it was almost indistinguishable from a boxing match - it certainly wasn't passion.

There were times in fact when the explosive fury of the exchanges threatened to overpower the creativity which was bursting to get out of both these talented sides. Eventually, however, the good triumphed over the simmering resentment and what we had was an epic encounter in which Leicester displayed all the qualities which will surely carry them unchallenged to the league title.

Not the least of their strengths is the devastating accuracy of Joel Stransky's goal kicking. Yesterday, from a variety of distances and angles and in retaliation for a host of infringements ranging from high tackles to verbal dissent, the Leicester fly-half kicked 21 points from seven penalties. It was his deadly consistency which gradually built up Leicester's lead during a torrid first half when tempers were close to boiling point.

Imperceptibly, the Tigers began to move out of reach of their opponents and when London Irish did succeed in building up a head of steam, mainly by clever use of the blind side, chiefly on the left-hand side of the field, they found Leicester's defence unbreachable. The crushing weight of the hits they inflicted on the Irish rattled their bones and ultimately broke their spirit.

The decisive moment came in that critical period just before half-time. Leicester had been hurling themselves at the Irish defence with a series of drives. Most of them were from short range but one, involving a lightening exchange between Neil Back and Martin Corry from further out, had all but yielded a try. Ironically, after all the hard graft, the try which turned the match was a soft one. Dave Lougheed, coming in off the left wing, appeared outside Stransky and broke the tamest of tackling in midfield to cross for the try which extended Leicester's lead to 17 points. Stransky, with his sixth penalty, rounded it up to 20 in the fourth minute of injury time.

The Irish, whose vigorous challenge for every ball and whose adventure, if occasionally wayward in its execution, had created several promising situations, had received scant reward, but in truth they were badly let down by their indiscipline. Their frustration was at times understandable in the face of some childish petulance - and in the case of Austin Healey's unprovoked stamping on Kevin Putt's head, unpardonable violence - but they contributed to their own downfall by their failure to keep their mounting irritation in check and lost both ground and points by senseless backchat to the referee. One wincingly high tackle by Brendan Venter on Craig Joiner as the Leicester centre raced through the middle, was the sort of incident to provoke an all-out war and this unfortunately set the tone for the early exchanges.

In the end, however, common sense prevailed and although the temperature kept perilously close to boiling point, both sides settled down, choosing their different methods of getting on with the game. Leicester's was clearly the more successful. Their forwards, in irresistible form, simply choked the life out of the Irish pack and as a consequence, stifled the creative powers of their backs, whose trickery foundered time and again on the mighty Leicester defence. Corry had another immense game and, less obviously, so did Lewis Moody. By the time he was replaced by Will Johnson the job had been done and the anticipated Irish counter at the start of the second half had been quelled.

Leicester had allowed themselves the luxury of one lapse in concentration, leaving space for Venter to squeeze through for a try which Niall Woods, who had earlier missed with two penalty attempts, converted. Stransky's seventh penalty tied down Leicester's nerve ends and fittingly wound up the match so that Leon Lloyd's try a minute into injury time merely demonstrated to the Irish the qualities required to win titles.

Despite their recent run of success the Irish game is too one-dimensional and for all their individual talent it was the collective power of Leicester which made the difference. If this was a true guide to their form, the only question to be asked is who will finish second?

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, C Joiner (J Stuart, 71), P Howard, D Lougheed; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree (D Jelley, 62), R Cockerill (D West, 67), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, L Moody (W Johnson, 67), M Corry, N Back.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, R Todd, B Venter, N Woods; S Bachop, K Putt; N Hatley (M Worsley, 73), R Kirke, R Hardwick (K Fullman, 62), R Strudwick, N Harvey, J Boer, I Feaunati, R Gallacher.

Referee: G Hughes (RFU)