If it is not the question of the age, it was certainly the question of last week: is the modern rugby professional capable of playing three hard games, two of them internationals, in the space of 20 days, or does the poor petal need a rest? The England flanker James Haskell was in effect told: "Please feel free to pop across the Channel and play for Stade Français, and if you do, please feel free not to pop back." No one said any such thing to Martin Castrogiovanni – the Italians care every bit as much about their Test players as the English, but do not have the muscle to order people around – so the prop made his own decision.
And quite a decision it turned out to be. Castrogiovanni, a long-haired sporting ninja with the body of an all-in wrestler and a name too wide for his shirt, did not quite beat London Irish single-handedly, but there was no disputing the fact that he made life terribly difficult for them, creating the first of Leicester's four tries with a pass out of contact worthy of a Wallaby centre and running in the third from 20-odd metres. OK, it was an interception job, but we must give the man due credit. The only thing most props find themselves intercepting is a punch aimed at someone else.
Seven days previously, he had anchored the Italian scrum in the Six Nations victory over Scotland; this coming weekend, he will find himself at the very epicentre of the forward conflict with France in Paris. Had Richard Cockerill, the Leicester coach, considered leaving him out of the starting line-up against London Irish? Not for a second.
"He wanted to play," said Cockerill, who also selected Geordan Murphy at full-back following the Irishman's winning effort in the tough match against England at Twickenham. "That was the key thing. Rugby players generally do, don't they? There's a lot of hype about resting people, about putting them on rotation. Most of these blokes are good enough and fit enough to play 30 games a season."
Would Haskell, a little flat since putting two tries past Wales in the opening round of Six Nations matches, really have worn himself out by whizzing back to Paris and playing against Toulouse at the weekend? As there were 80,000 spectators sardined into Stade de France, might it not have given him a lift? Castrogiovanni had a ball at Welford Road – the expression on his front-rower's face as he pocketed up the man-of-the-match award was of purest joy – and it is hard to believe his performance for the Azzurri this coming Sunday will be any the worse for it.
Judging by the shock-and-awe power of Leicester's rugby in the opening half-hour – they were 25-3 ahead inside the 28th minute – another Premiership title is very much on the cards, although one of their most effective performers, Lote Tuqiri, is on his way back to Australia after deciding against extending his short-term contract. Yet London Irish did not leave entirely empty-handed. There are very few teams in European rugby capable of summoning the furies in a lost cause as effectively as they did in the second period.
Bob Casey's leadership from the second row, Paul Hodgson's craft at scrum-half and Steffon Armitage's energy on the open-side flank helped them find a way into the contest and there were flashes of inspiration from Ryan Lamb at stand-off to suggest exciting times ahead. Back within nine points and a mere drop goal away from something tangible, they gave best only when the understated but highly effective Anthony Allen conjured a late try at the sticks for George Chuter.
Leicester: Tries Tuilagi, Hamilton, Castrogiovanni, Chuter; Conversions Flood 2, Murphy; Penalties Flood 2, Staunton. London Irish: Try Armitage; Conversion Homer; Penalties Lamb 3, Homer.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton (M Smith, 81), L Tuqiri, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood (J Staunton, 43), B Youngs (J Grindal, 81); M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 73), M Davies (G Chuter, 69), M Castrogiovanni (J White, 73), C Green (T Croft, 66), G Parling, C Newby, B Woods (B Deacon, 11), J Crane.
London Irish: T Homer (J Lennard, 77); J Rudd (M Catt, 14-22), E Seveali'i. S Mapusua, P Hewat; R Lamb, P Hodgson; D Murphy (M Lahiff, 77), J Buckland (D Coetzee, 64), F Rautenbach (P Ion, 64), N Kennedy (K Roche, 57), R Casey (capt), G Stowers, S Armitage, C Hala'ufia (J Gibson, 80).
Referee: C Berdos (France).Reuse content