There were moments on Sunday when Welford Road was eerily quiet, partly because the unrated visitors from Worcester were giving the reigning Premiership champions a run for their money and partly because Leicester’s rent-a row director of rugby Richard Cockerill had been formally removed from polite society by the Rugby Football Union following a scatological outburst during last season’s Grand Final at Twickenham. Short of smearing superglue on his lips and tying his vocal cords in a knot, the governing body could not have done more to render him silent.
Cockerill watched proceedings from a vantage point well out of harm’s way: he had no access to either the coaching booth or the dressing room, let alone the touchline or the tunnel. It was a crying shame, if truth be told, for the bullet-headed former hooker’s views on events would have been interesting indeed – not least his thoughts on the scrum and the new laws pertaining to it.
The usual fun and games unfolded at the set-piece as Leicester, armed with Lions Test front-rowers in Tom Youngs and Dan Cole, sought to make sense of a cussed, bloody-minded Worcester trio. There was all manner of frustration as scrum after scrum failed to reach a natural conclusion, and by the end, the visitors felt every bit as hard done by as their hosts.
By way of rubbing it in, Worcester were not best pleased at losing Mike Williams, their second-row forward, to the cooler shortly after the interval, especially as they conceded a close-range try to the eye-catching Tigers No 8 Jordan Crane during his absence. Dean Ryan, their new rugby director, felt Williams’ late nudge on the outside-half Ryan Lamb had been something of nothing – a very long way shy of yellow card territory, certainly. “You can’t go close to a Leicester No 10 at Welford Road when it’s getting tight, and that’s a fact,” he muttered.
Ryan’s side conceded the best part of 20 penalties, and it may well be that he will seek enlightenment on some, if not all, of Luke Pearce’s decisions. Unfortunately, the whistling hierarchy is in a state of flux following last week’s news that the ever-popular Ed Morrison, who ran the RFU’s elite referee department with great common sense, a profound level of patience and enormous good humour for five fraught and fractious years, had lost his job. The officials themselves are spitting tacks at the way Morrison was treated by the union and if it transpires that the Premiership clubs, keen to have a bigger say in these matters, were in any way responsible, there will be hell to pay.
There again, Morrison might feel he is well out of it. There were mutterings here, prompted by a split-second of television footage, about a second-half incident involving Cole and the Worcester outside-half Ignacio Mieres. Still photographs appeared to show Mieres’ hand in Cole’s mouth and the Argentine ended up with a bloodied finger, but these cases are not always “open and shut”, so to speak. There was no complaint to the referee during the game. Any citing must be made by mid-afternoon tomorrow.
Pearce himself seemed apologetic each time to reached for his whistle, but at no point did Ryan seek to blame him for Worcester’s defeat. The underdogs finished second because for all their enthusiasm in defence – their back division, featuring three Fijians and two Samoans alongside the excellent English full-back Chris Pennell, worked overtime – they seldom played with sufficient control to generate the level of scoring necessary to prevail in these unwelcoming parts.
It will come, though. Another Fijian, the No 8 Semisi Taulava, sometimes looked off the pace, but he gave the heavy-duty Leicester forwards all manner of trouble and strife when he found himself on the front foot and, according to Ryan, he will only improve: “Speed of thought is the challenge, as much as anything else. Leicester don’t do anything different to us, but they are five or six seconds quicker in seeing things. People talk about aerobic fitness and all the rest of it, but the mind is everything. That’s what we’re tying to work on.”
In the end, it was one of the champions’ South Seas brigade, the wing Vereniki Goneva, who made the crucial contribution at the last knockings to earn his side an attacking bonus point. It seemed as though Leicester would be settling for a three-try victory, two of them excellent first-half finishes from Adam Thompstone and David Mele (below), when, with 10 seconds left on the clock, the Fijian drove through Paul Hodgson’s cover tackle in the right corner and grounded the ball at full stretch.
Until that point, Worcester had been growing in stature. Crane’s try had put them 25-3 adrift, but with Taulava finding his second wind and his fellow back-rower Jonathan Thomas playing a canny hand as captain, the visitors dragged themselves back into the argument with two tries in the space of nine minutes either side of the hour mark. Chris Jones claimed the first from a few inches, Josh Matavesi the second from rather further out.
Characteristically, Ryan refused to reach for the bubbly in celebration of a glorious defeat. He knew his side had caught Leicester in “first-week mode”, and that the Tigers had taken the field without back-line players as dangerous as Mathew Tait, Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs. But there was a silver lining, even so.
“That 10-point lead of theirs was looking pretty fragile for a while and that was heartening,” he said. “We’re looking to develop character and behaviour that will underpin us over the next two or three years, so I’m pretty proud of the second-half performance. At 25-3 down we could have crawled under a rock and taken a real beating. We didn’t.”
Scorers: Leicester: Tries Thompstone, Mele, Crane, Goneva; Conversions Lamb 2, Williams; Penalties Lamb 2. Worcester: Tries Jones, Matavesi; Conversion Mieres; Penalty: Mieres.
Leicester: N Morris; V Goneva, A Allen, D Bowden, A Thompstone; R Lamb (O Williams, 75), D Mele; L Mulipola, T Youngs (N Briggs, 75), D Cole, L Deacon (capt, E Slater, 57), G Parling. T Croft, J Salvi,J Crane (T Waldrom, 63).
Worcester: C Pennell; J Drauninui, R Fatiaki, J Matavesi (J Clarke, 68), D Lemi; I Mieres, J Su’a (P Hodgson, 57); J Becasseau (P Andrew, 68), E Shervington, J Andress (R O’Donnell, 68), M Williams, D Schofield (C Jones, 56), J Thomas (capt), S Betty (J Abbott, 45), S Taulava.
Referee: L Pearce (Devon).