Rugby Union: Tigers know danger is not yet averted

Leicester 31 London Irish 10
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SO MUCH for the full-frontal assault, now for the sneaky ambush. Six points clear with seven matches to go, Leicester appear to have it sorted; generously endowed with more Test talent than they know what to do with - they hit the Johnny-come-latelys of London Irish with 13 full internationals - the Tigers are also the hungriest, closest-knit, best organised and most ruthless band of cut-throat desperadoes in the Premiership. Done and dusted, then? Sure, just as Crisp was home and dry at Aintree and Kevin Keegan had the title in the bag at Newcastle United. The last lap is always the longest, especially when your greatest strengths begin to conspire against you.

Try persuading Dean Richards that the Premiership entered the realms of the foregone conclusion on Saturday. The Leicester manager is hardly the most animated of souls - he tends to celebrate comprehensive victories in the same way Eeyore celebrated his birthday - but he is perfectly justified in insisting that his side are now heading for perilous depths rather than coasting gently towards the jetty. "These next few weeks are the difficult ones," he growled. "The Five Nations is our biggest problem because it will stretch our squad to the limit and in a way, I feel we're being penalised for having so many good English players." Then, out of nowhere, a half-smile. "Thank God we're out of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup."

Over the next eight weeks, three-quarters of the Tigers' pack will be sucked body and spirit into the red rose whirl; so too will Austin Healey, their best scrum-half, and Leon Lloyd, whose sleek prowess on the right- wing should ensure him four Friday run-outs with the second-string A team.

Threaded between the representative demands are a knock-out quarter-final at Richmond and Premiership games against Northampton, Wasps, Saracens and, depending on cup commitments, Bath. There are no gimmes amongst that lot; just a series of hard, bruising, knackering afternoons at the pit- head.

Thanks a bunch.

"It's simply unrealistic to expect every last one of us to get through the next couple of months in one piece," admitted an extensively stitched Neil Back, whose afternoon of high adventure amid a thicket of Irish knees and elbows left him very much the worse for wear. "I suppose it's the price you pay for success. At the start of the season, we conceded nine tries in 10 Premiership games. Then we went to Wasps on an international weekend and shipped six in 80 minutes. If that were to cost us the title, I'd be bloody annoyed. Still, we're a stronger squad now than we were two years ago, when we ended up playing nine games in 27 days. That was an impossible situation; we were starting matches with injured players."

On the face of it, Leicester put an entire Pacific of clear blue water between themselves and their two remaining rivals, Northampton and Saracens, by out-muscling a London Irish outfit that breezed into the East Midlands with a new superiority complex where their old give-it-a-lash-for-an-hour philosophy used to be. Yet despite their personnel resources and the user- friendly tactical approach that allows second-stringers to fit easily into a tried and trusted system, certain forwards - Richard Cockerill, Darren Garforth, Martin Johnson, Martin Corry and Back himself - are close to indispensible. Which is why the Five Nations is so threatening to the champions-elect: remove two or more of the big-hitters from the Tiger- striped equation and the playing field levels out.

All things being equal, though, the front-runners will make it up the final furlong without too much trauma. Certainly, their victory on Saturday was more clear-cut than the pre-match hypesters imagined; Joel Stransky's six first-half penalties spoke volumes for the pressure exerted by the uglies up front and if London Irish enjoyed a brief but exhilarating resurrection after the break, it had more to do with Leicester complacency than any sea change in the balance of forward power. "Why are we so utterly useless after half-time?" moaned Graham Rowntree, happily restored to something like his old self after the physical and psychological torments of the previous 12 months. "It happens every week and we need to get our heads together."

As the Irish discovered to their cost, all the Steve Bachops and Brendan Venters in the world are of precious little value if they are denied the weaponry of possession. Johnson and Fritz van Heerden closed out the Exiles at the line-out, not least because the otherwise impressive Richard Kirke threw like Boy George rather than Bobby George, and the visiting front row were wholly de-energised by repulsing the ABC triumvirate at 10 five- metre scrums.

Add to that some one-eyed refereeing from the theatrical Graham Hughes and there was little to prevent an eighth straight Premiership victory for Deano's little darlings.

"We came here to find out how good we were and we discovered the answer: nowhere near as good as we thought," said Dick Best, the London Irish coach.

"We like to operate a `press defence', which involves getting into opposition faces very quickly, but the referee picked us up on it early and it killed us. Instead of learning the lesson and dropping off a metre, we stood our ground and gave away penalties, some of them pretty mindless. It's all about basics, really. We've been on the crest of a wave and when you're up there, the little things tend to get overlooked."

For all that, Best was not crying in his beer; in fact, he seemed quietly pleased. Saturday's shuddering collision with the Welford Road buffers means he can now continue his team-building project in relative peace and tranquillity.

Leicester: Tries Lougheed, Lloyd; Penalties Stransky 7. London Irish: Try Venter; Conversion Woods; Penalty Woods.

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, 68), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, L Moody (W Johnson, 68), 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 Fea'unati, R Gallacher.

Referee: G Hughes (Manchester).