Rugby Union: Tiring Tigers claw narrow win

Leicester 25 Saracens 18
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The Independent Online
THE PRESSURE of a long hard season, and the effort to remain on course, is beginning to tell. Bodies are wearing out and tempers are wearing thin. Even at Welford Road, where Leicester did just enough to send Saracens away empty-handed.

Indeed, the North London visitors were lucky still to have the full complement by the final whistle, firstly because they had been forced to call up Paul Wallace at two o'clock Saturday morning, telling him to forget his season was over because of an impending groin operation. Instead, he was to present himself at the Leicester ground that day because there was a propping crisis.

"They rang me a second time at 8 o'clock to make sure I remembered," said the genial Ireland tighthead, who came on for the last dozen or so minutes."I felt the injury when we scrummaged but not when I was running around."

Such selflessness is typical of the spirit the club has engendered, although whether Wallace will be back in Saracens black next season is not sure. "I am still negotiating a new contract," he explained. "It is being held up because of the salary cap."

Another factor is that the Irish RFU is offering tempting sums to entice their top players home, although Wallace insisted they had made no offer to him. If he were to go, he would be a big loss to Saracens.

On the pitch Saracens were being threatened with their second potential loss. Very late in the day Leicester were awarded a penalty - one of a countless number which reflected rather more badly on each side's indiscipline than it did on the excellent referee Chris White - because Tigers' centre Craig Joiner was hanging on to one of Roberto Grau's legs.

The Argentine prop, naturally enough, felt a trifle peeved and, when he reclaimed his limb, decided to illustrate his indignation in a physical manner. Sadly, at one point he appeared to deliver a head butt which seemed to connect with Joiner's face. The Scotland international suffered a delayed reaction before falling to the ground.

The enormous Leicester crowd bayed for red, but the excellent Mr White defused the situation and, other than a lecture, ignored the call of the crowd. Very wise, since television footage of the incident later proved inconclusive.

Of far more concern to Leicester is their form, andcaptain, Martin Johnson, admitted: "We have been playing poorly. But when you look at the injuries we have had it is understandable, although the guys coming in have played really well."

But they still lack bite and penetration out wide. As usual the pack was immense, Martin Corry grows in stature week by week and he earned praise from Saracens' captain-coach Francois Pienaar, who said: "Corry was excellent. I rate him very highly, he is a fantastic player with a tremendous work rate."

Johnson, the flankers Neil Back and the dynamic Lewis Moody, as well as the indomitable front row, all added to the mix, but the possession was invariably thrown away, lost in contact, or run into touch by the shapeless backs.

Saracens, in contrast, while not being pushed around up front, were unable to make the sort of inroads needed if their potent backs were to breach the Leicester defences. However, whenever there was even a glimmer of a chance, the likes of Ryan Constable or his abrasive centre partner Kevin Sorrell would invariably cut an angle that had the Tigers clawing furiously at black shirts and, out on the wing, Brandon Daniel and Rob Thirlby were ever eager to have a dart.

Daniel, especially, deserves praise. He is one of some 15 players whose contract will not be renewed at the end of the season. Mark Evans, the club's director of rugby, admitted the decision on each player had been personally painful to him.

"The team spirit is strong, we are a close-knit bunch and we are going to play for each other until the end of the season," Daniel declared. "I am not going to leave the club with any bitterness."

The wear and tear will soon be over for everyone. That is when the tears will start for some.

Leicester: Try Corry; Conversion Stimpson; Penalties Stimpson 6. Saracens: Penalties Johnson 6.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, C Joiner, J Stuart, D Lougheed; P Howard, J Hamilton (A Healey, 41); G Rowntree (D Jelley, 66), R Cockerill (D West, 66), 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 Thompson, 71); A Penaud, M Olsen (M Powell, 70); R Grau, G Chuter, B Reidy (P Wallace, 68), K Chesney, C Yandell, R Hill, A Diprose, F Pienaar (capt) (B Cole, 56-59; 70).

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).