Rugby Union: Untamed Tigers on edge

Northampton 15 Leicester 22
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The Independent Online
IF, AS seems likely, this was the match which decided the championship it was unfortunate that the contestants should have yielded to their baser instincts and that it should have been settled in such a disagreeable and ill-tempered fashion. Three players were sent to the sin-bin, one Saint and two Tigers, including their captain Martin Johnson, whose disciplinary record is now a cause for serious concern.

Despite the fact that his dismissal, which was allegedly for stamping, appeared harsh, his general demeanour left a lot to be desired. He became unnecessarily embroiled in the incident which led to Pat Howard's visit to the sin-bin, in which there was standing room only. In four consecutive matches Johnson has received two yellow and two white cards and for all his protestations of innocence he must now take a long hard look at his attitude because such behaviour does not befit a player of his calibre - and the team leader to boot.

In the circumstances it was perhaps appropriate that the winning score came as a result of indiscipline, when the Northampton prop Matt Stewart was ordered to the sin-bin and the Saints' scrummage, grievously under- powered, went down four times close to their own line, giving the referee no alternative but to award the penalty try which Tim Stimpson converted. Not only did it win the match but it has probably sealed the championship title for Leicester.

Elevated positions in the league, however, are not always a guarantee of quality and so high was the error count yesterday between the top two sides in the Premiership that there were times when it seemed that we were viewing the table through the wrong end of the telescope. Too much knowledge can be as dangerous as too little and there was no doubt that both sides had been fully briefed. The problem was that neither appeared strong enough to exploit the other's weaknesses. There were a staggeringly high number of unforced errors and, consequently, the game lacked shape and direction.

The absence of Paul Grayson with a pelvic injury was as serious a blow to Northampton as Joel Stransky's absence was to Leicester. Neither side seemed capable of taking a grip on the game. Howard made a number of clever runs and Nick Beal, with his well-timed intrusions from full-back, was Northampton's chief attacking weapon. But apart from Craig Joiner's try, which was a beauty, there was little of sustained quality.

Leicester were worth their win if only because they scored three tries to the five penalty goals kicked by Matt Dawson. Joiner's try began deep inside the Leicester half when Howard wound himself up to launch a mighty pass across the face of his midfield straight to Leon Lloyd on the right wing. Lloyd set off at a blistering pace, slowing down to allow Joiner to come up alongside. The centre took the pass and, although he was brought down short, bounced over the line for the try.

It was one of the rare moments when the rugby overshadowed the petulant niggle which simmered so close to the surface. There were too many wind- up merchants on the field and when Howard held Dawson down as the scrum-half seemed to be on the point of scoring, both Johnson and Richard Cockerill involved themselves in the incident. The fact that neither side could wrest control from the other had much to do with the fraying of nerves and the boiling of tempers.

Of time and space there was very little and, as a result, the game was littered with errors. Too often the good and, despite everything, there was some of that, was ruined by the rank bad. Few were able to rise above it although Martin Corry , a major force once again, succeeded.

Seconds after Johnson had been sent from the field it was the Leicester No 8 who plunged over in the corner for Leicester's second try. As the Tigers were at this point reduced to 13 men it had the twin effect of raising Leicester's spirits and sinking Northampton's hopes, which had been lifted when they had succeeded minutes earlier in holding out against the Tigers' powerful drive from their favourite position, a line-out five metres from the opposition line.

There were 14 minutes remaining in the match and the try had restored Leicester's lead and given them a cushion of three points. But given their numerical disadvantage it scarcely seemed to be enough to protect them from Northampton's closing onslaught. Dawson kicked his fifth penalty to level the scores but the anticipated counter-attack never materialised. The game descended into a series of off-the-ball skirmishes and when Stewart departed Northampton's hopes went too.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Northey, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hether, M Dawson; M Volland, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt), D Mackinnon (M Hynes, 78), P Lam, B Pountney.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd (N Ezulike, 74), C Joiner, J Stuart (G Murphy, 41), D Lougheed; P Howard, J Hamilton; D Jelle (G Rowntree, 62), R Cockerill (D West, 74), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, L Moody (W Johnson, 68), M Corry, N Back.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).