Rugby Union: Tigers revert to type

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The Independent Online
Leicester 22

Saracens 18

It takes years to acquire the winning habit, days to lose it, and although Leicester have at last succeeded in stopping the rot of a record three successive league defeats, they should take little comfort from a victory which was ultimately achieved by a giant step into the past.

There will, however, be little future for Leicester if they continue to play as badly as this. In the end it was the strength of their scrummage and the accuracy of John Liley's boot which saw them through, but it wasn't until seven minutes from the end that Liley, with his fourth penalty, gave Leicester a lead they scarcely deserved.

Not surprisingly, in view of Saracens' total disarray in the tight, the penalty was awarded for a collapsed scrummage, the same infringement from which Leicester had previously been given a penalty try. From that point on Saracens disintegrated into the seriously awful. Liley kicked his fifth penalty and Leicester held on to their dignity - just. They are not completely out of the title race but neither are they assured of a place in Europe, and on this form they are not good enough for it.

For Francois Pienaar, the recently installed Saracens coach, there are many more problems. No championship prospects and no Europe for them. But if they are to have any hope of survival in what will be an even more competitive league next season they will first of all have to find a decent scrummage. I don't know how much Saracens are paying Tony Daly, but in his present state of fitness it is he who should be paying them.

Having tried and failed to find a way through Saracens' eager defence and having run out of creative ideas as early as the first quarter, Leicester reverted to their old ways. A line-out five metres from the Saracens line took them into the comfort zone. Martin Johnson, whose temperament for captaincy is open to question, won the ball at the front and the Leicester pack drove in familiar phalanx for the line. They were held up short but won a scrummage. Twice the referee penalised Saracens as the Tigers drove forward but when they collapsed in retreat for a third time he had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try. Liley's conversion put Leicester within sight of victory.

Up to that point Saracens had looked the sharper and more cohesive side, despite their propensity for squandering possession and the misfortune of losing Michael Lynagh after 17 minutes with a nasty swelling over his eye.

This was crucial because the control and organisation he brings to Saracens was badly missed. So was his goalkicking. Andy Lee, his replacement, missed a sitter of a drop-goal and the conversion of tries by Paul Wallace, who crashed his way through some indifferent tackling, and Pienaar, who was at the heart of a rolling maul set up by a clean take by Tony Diprose at the tail of a line-out.

Saracens had set up their position close to the Leicester line as a result of Johnson's illegal tackle on the Saracens captain, who once again showed himself to be a player of high quality but with too many rough edges, most noticeably the looseness of his play in the open. But in tandem with Richard Hill and Pienaar he put in a number of telling hits on the Leicester runners, particularly early in the match when the Tigers forwards produced a rousing response to Saracens' encouraging opening.

In that spell they scored the try of the match from the move of the match, when Paddy Johns, who was replaced in the second half, plucked the ball out of a line out and Philippe Sella in midfield cleverly delayed his pass to the supporting Hill. A long feed from the flanker put the Saracens wing Muna Ebongalame over in the corner.

Three minutes later Lynagh kicked a penalty but mainly as a result of their own profligacy and failure to control their own possession Saracens began to lose ground and Liley began to chip away at their lead. He kicked three penalties and after half an hour Leicester led 9-8. They had to wait another 43 minutes to rediscover their composure.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, N Malone, C Joiner, R Underwood; R Liley, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole, J Wells, E Miller (W Drake-Lee, 67), N Back.

Saracens: M Singer; R Wallace, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, M Ebongalame; M Lynagh (A Lee, 17), K Bracken; T Daly (A Olver, 64), G Botterman, P Wallace, P Johns (C Yandell, 58), T Copsey, F Pienaar, T Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).

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