Rugby Union: Tigers thrive on teamwork

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The Independent Online
Dick Best has never been afraid to call a spade a shovel and after watching his Harlequins team dig their own grave against a Leicester side admirably equipped to take advantage of any free gifts that might come their way, he was characteristically blunt in his appraisals. "Surprise, surprise, we missed our kicks again," he lamented after the Tigers' 34- 18 victory. "As far as I'm concerned, Thierry Lacroix can't arrive quickly enough."

We get your drift, Dick, but Monsieur Lacroix is no walking panacea. Unless he can guarantee quality line-out possession, scrummage like a dumper-truck and cling on to passes thrown six feet in front of his face - and the expensive, experienced French midfield maestro has rarely shown either inclination or ability in any of those directions - Harlequins will continue to fall flat on their highly salaried backs whenever they come face to face with half-decent opponents.

Agreed, Steve Pilgrim fluffed three kickable first-half penalties, any one of which might have given the notoriously brittle Quins pack some much needed nourishment. But while the full-back was struggling in vain to adjust his radar, Leicester were performing with the stamp of champions; utterly secure in the set- pieces, fast and muscular in the loose and strikingly inventive out wide, they would have soaked up a dozen Pilgrim penalties and still pocketed the points.

The moral of the tale can best be illustrated by regurgitating one of sport's old cliches: you can buy new players, but you can't buy a team. Harlequins have individual talent seeping from every pore in their collective body, but their grasp of rugby's abstractions - guts, commitment, bloody-mindedness, determination in adversity - remains as tenuous as ever. The coat of many colours is still full of holes.

By way of contrast, Leicester are nothing if not a unit. Forced to visit The Stoop, where Quins have not lost all season, with Stuart Potter, Rob Liley and their linchpin folk hero Dean Richards, missing - scrum pox accounted for the former England No 8 on the morning of the match - they responded with a huge performance, their traditional forward expertise embellished by brilliance outside.

Yes, brilliance. It is no longer a contradiction in terms to use the word in connection with a Tigers threequarter line. By adding spice to their back division in the shape of Austin Healey, full of snap and verve at scrum-half, and Will Greenwood, quite obviously an international centre in waiting, they have taken decisive steps towards building a championship- winning side. What is more, they possess a coach capable of guiding them to their in style.

If anyone in the claustrophobic close-knit Tigers family is still questioning the wisdom of recruiting such an individual outsider as Bob Dwyer, he or she must be blind, deaf and stupid. In his Australian way Dwyer has ruffled one or two feathers at Welford Road but by heaven, he has made the right sort of impact.

The former Wallaby coach was in no doubt that his side touched new heights in defeating the Londoners with so much to spare. "That was the best we've played all season in terms of pace, urgency and recycling of the ball.

"We've worked really hard on technique, alignment and angles of running over the last four months and we are starting to do the simple things very well indeed, which is the key to winning rugby. Mind you, it doesn't help selection when the new guys play as well as this."

Step forward Eric Miller, the Dublin-born No 8 from the Old Wesley club, who not only filled in for Richards but played with such authority that it was difficult to imagine the great man himself doing any better. Step forward also Rory Underwood, recalled to first team activity by default but keen enough to claim two tries and manufacture a third for John Liley.

That latter try on 27 minutes showed Leicester at their new-fangled best. Miller not only showed sufficient wit and responsibility to take a quick tapped penalty after spotting more than one Harlequin back turned towards him, but he showed strength as well as poise in gaining enough yardage to make the attack meaningful. Niall Malone, a better running outside- half than a kicking one, delayed his pass to Underwood to split-second perfection and the record-breaking England wing drew on the instinct that brought him 85 Test caps to select the right angle, bounce off a couple of desperate tackles and give his full-back the red carpet treatment all the way to the line.

Yet it was Greenwood who repeatedly caught the eye with his straight running, shrewd options and cultured simplicity. The long pass to Underwood that created the opening try after four minutes was out of the top drawer and when the time came to shelve the fancy stuff and roll up the sleeves, he bravely worked his way underneath Laurent Benezech to prevent a Quins try within seconds of the restart.

Having overshadowed the heavy-duty Quins pairing of Will Carling and Gary Connolly, Greenwood deserved a try against his old club. The fates obliged in the 53rd minute when Connolly, who will return to Wigan after the league match with Bath on 11 January, found himself blown away by Greenwood in open field and could only turn to see his opposite number disappear into the wide blue yonder.

One of the great joys of 1996 for dyed-in-the-wool union loyalists has been the sight of sundry rugby league imports struggling to come to terms with the so-called softies' game. One of the joys of 1997 could well be the sight of Greenwood blazing a path back to Twickenham and straight into the England dressing room.

Harlequins: Tries Harries 2; Conversions Challinor; Penalties Pilgrim, Challinor. Leicester: Tries Underwood 2, Liley, Greenwood; Conversions Liley; Penalties Liley 4.

Harlequins: S Pilgrim; D O'Leary, G Connolly, W Carling, S Bromley; P Challinor, H Harries; L Benezech, K Wood, J Leonard (capt), A Snow, G Llewellyn (I Pickup, 78), G Allison, W Davison, L Cabannes.

Leicester J Liley; S Hackney, L Lloyd, W Greenwood, R Underwood; N Malone, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole J Wells (W Johnson, 45), E Miller, N Back.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).