Cole fires England notice to Johnson
Leicester 34 Wasps 8
Any cynics among the sell-out 24,000 audience at Welford Road – and there must have been a few, for Leicester crowds are not renowned for their credulity – would say they now fully understand why Wasps once had a well-earned reputation for moving to uncontested scrums at the drop of a hat and are now equally renowned for their reluctance to play in extreme conditions. They might also point out that if England's coaches imagine they can win the forthcoming Six Nations Championship with a tight-forward game based around the things the Londoners do in this department, they should expect an early visit from the men in white coats.
Wasps were not merely dismantled at the set-piece on Saturday: they were marmalised, smithereened, obliterated, beaten to a pulp. This must be of acute concern to Martin Johnson and the rest of the red-rose hierarchy, given that England's first-choice prop on the loose-head side of the scrum, Tim Payne, and their foremost scrummaging lock, Simon Shaw, were operating at the heart of this powder-puff pack, together with a couple of uncapped forwards from the second-string Saxons squad.
Payne spent time in the cooler for playing the "Mr Collapso" role – the Tigers scored 17 points during his absence – and when he had the brass neck to continue performing it on his return, he found himself within a gnat's crotchet of being sent off. For his part, Shaw failed to go the distance after hyperextending a knee, possibly the consequence of attempting to move forward half an inch while being driven back 20 yards at a time. When the irresistible force meets the all-too-moveable object, there can be only one winner.
It was a sure sign of Wasps' distress that when the unfortunate Payne was substituted – or rather, put out of his misery – in the dying minutes and left the field to raucously ironic applause from the home supporters, the man chosen to replace him in a position wholly unfit for angels went by the Christian name of Gabriel. No, really. You couldn't possibly make it up.
What is that noise we hear? Why, it's the sound of chickens coming home to roost. If Leicester celebrated loud and long after this most comprehensive of victories against the only other team to win the Premiership title more than once, it was because they remembered only too clearly their scrummaging superiority being rendered useless in a big Twickenham final because Wasps ran out of props in a way that did not so much invite suspicion as insist upon it. The fact that teams must now suffer casualties on a Napoleonic scale before moving to uncontested scrums – and must also forfeit a man once they get there – is one of the saving graces of this current campaign.
If Wasps travelled up the M1 with a number of props on their lengthy injury list – Phil Vickery, Jason Hobson and Tom French among them – there was no guarantee, or even a likelihood, that any combination would have found a way of subduing Marcos Ayerza, Mefin Davies and Dan Cole in Saturday's freezing conditions, or any other conditions come to that. Cole, the 22-year-old local product whose current run of tight-head form gives him an excellent chance of an immediate England call-up, was at full bore once again; indeed, if Payne sees him again this side of eternity, he will surely consider it too soon.
Richard Cockerill, the Leicester head coach, was in slightly mischievous mood when pressed on Cole's chances of beating the likes of Duncan Bell and Paul Doran-Jones to a place on the Six Nations roster. "He still has the odd bad scrum and while he's been playing exceptionally well, you have to take some account of the people he's been up against," said the hard-bitten old hooker, his eyes a-twinkle. The most recent accounting includes three international props: Lionel Faure of France, whom Cole scrummaged off the pitch; Matias Aguero of Italy, on whom he inflicted the full range of front-row indignities; and Payne of England, of whom the least said the better. For all his diversionary tactics, Cockerill knows as well as anyone, and better than most, that he has a major find on his hands.
As the scrum was so utterly decisive, it was easy to miss some of the other strengths of Leicester's game against opponents who started well enough to score a fine early try and might have turned round 11-3 up had Danny Cipriani, the architect of the opening score, not opted to run a penalty on the Tigers 22 rather than take the points on offer – a decision described by his director of rugby, Tony Hanks, as "just a little ambitious". In particular, there was a terrific performance from the up-and-coming Ben Youngs at scrum-half, who revelled in his instinctive grasp of the game's fundamentals, and a vintage effort from the been-there-and-done-it wing Lote Tuqiri, who scored twice and gave Wasps all the hassle they could handle.
There was also much to admire from the French referee Romain Poite, whose intelligent handling of a combustible fixture was a shot in the arm for officials everywhere post-Cockerill, post-Edgeley Park and post-Venter. He may have missed a forward pass in the build-up to Mark van Gisbergen's try for Wasps and failed to notice Tuqiri's fluffed touchdown early in the second half, but there could be no arguing with an approach that reflected and rewarded supremacy wherever it was established.
In an ideal world, Johnson would have seen a little more of Cipriani on the front foot, for there were moments in the first half when the celebrity playmaker looked a million dollars. There again, he must have appreciated the things accomplished by Toby Flood (below) in a similar vein – less obviously dynamic, but no less sophisticated for that. A bold selector would include both men in his Six Nations squad. If there is room for only one of them, the smart money must be on the man blessed with subtlety, rather than the one sprinkled with stardust.
Leicester: Tries Tuqiri 2, Murphy, Penalty; Conversions Flood 4; Penalties Flood 2. Wasps: Try Van Gisbergen. Penalty Cipriani.
Leicester: S Hamilton; J Murphy (A Tuilagi, 57), D Hipkiss, T Flood, L Tuqiri; J Staunton (S Vesty, 67) , B Youngs (J Grindal, 67); M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 68), M Davies (G Chuter, 63), D Cole (R Harris, 71), L Deacon (capt), G Parling, C Newby (T Croft, 61), L Moody, J Crane (B Deacon, 68).
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen (D Walder, 76; Van Gisbergen, 78); P Sackey, B Jacobs, D Waldouck, D Lemi; D Cipriani, M Robinson (J Honeyben, 69); T Payne (G Bocca, 77), R Webber (J Ward, 65), B Broster (S Taulafo, 49), S Shaw (M Veale, 57), G Skivington, J Hart (capt), W Matthews (Taulafo, 40-48; D Leo, 55), D Ward-Smith.
Referee: R Poite (France).
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