Depleted Tigers given food for thought by hungry new boys

Leicester 37 Exeter 27
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The Independent Online

When Leicester reconvene for training today they will do so in thoughtful mood. England's champions may have taken maximum points from Saturday's Aviva Premiership game with Exeter Chiefs but the manner of their victory, together with a growing casualty list, is causing concern.

Already short of six forwards and Toby Flood, Dan Hipkiss and Anthony Allen left Welford Road with twisted ankles though both centres are optimistic of a swift recovery. Even so, Hipkiss may need a scan on his left leg today while his club's coaching staff review a defence that leaked three tries and a line-out that is unrecognisable from last season. No surprise there, since George Skivington and Calum Green are so new a pairing, but the appearance of England's blind-side Tom Croft as a second-row replacement against Exeter was commentary enough. "Two years ago I played the majority of the season there," Croft said. "I'm just happy to be on the pitch."

Given the absence of Louis Deacon, Geoff Parling and Richard Blaze, though, it is easy to see Croft being summoned to a tight forward's duty again.

Nor was Croft shy about tipping Exeter for a place in the Premiership's top six when this season ends. "Whether other teams have under- estimated them, I don't know, but they'll do the basics well, they truck it up well, they have a good lineout and good operators at 10 and 12," he said, though such praise will mean little to a club denied even a losing bonus point by the last play of the match.

Rob Baxter, their coach, will analyse the refereeing decisions of Dean Richards, who awarded 22 penalties to Leicester and only six to Exeter. Baxter is not one to shout the odds in public but his team's perceived weakness in the tackle area and at the set scrum gave Leicester a lifebelt that, at times, they needed badly: "I'm not sure that, at the end, the scrum was all Exeter's problems," he said, which was admirably restrained, given that Leicester were awarded the latest of penalty tries, which earned them a bonus point and denied one to Exeter.

The longer-term concern for West Country supporters will be whether their big, physical team can continue to play such admirably direct rugby for the next eight months, in the cloying conditions of winter, with the injuries that will inevitably take their toll. Sufficient unto the day, perhaps: "We have no baggage in the Premiership, everything is an adventure," Baxter said.

So for long periods of the game they outmuscled Leicester, dictated the game's rhythm and worked Phil Dollman, twice, and Mark Foster over for tries that helped them to an 11-point lead midway through the second half. But whatever else Leicester lack at the moment, it is not composure nor a replacements bench of which Exeter can only dream, and in the final 16 minutes they scored 21 points.

Ben Youngs, so marked a man now he has become England's starting scrum-half, prompted the rally with the break that led to Scott Hamilton's try; a long gallop by Croft created an opportunity for Hipkiss and the forwards as a unit completed the job, but only after what Richard Cockerill, Leicester's coach, described as an "almighty fright".

Leicester: Tries Murphy, Hamilton, Hipkiss, penalty try; Conversions Staunton 4; Penalties Staunton 3. Exeter: Tries Dollman 2, Foster; Conversions Steenson 3. Penalties Steenson 2.

Leicester: G Murphy; S Hamilton, D Hipkiss, A Allen (B Twelvetrees, 18; M Tuilagi, 75), A Tuilagi; J Staunton, B Youngs; B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 41), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 49), C Green (T Croft, 41), G Skivington, C Newby (E Slater, 65), B Woods, T Waldrom.

Exeter: L Arscott; N Sestaret, P Dollman, B Rennie (M Jess, 67), M Foster; G Steenson, H Thomas; B Sturgess (B Moon, 57), N Clark (S Alcott, 54), H Tui (C Budgen, 16), T Hayes, J Hanks (sin bin 10-22), T Johnson (C Slade, 51), J Scaysbrook, J Phillips (D Gannon, 63).

Referee: D Richards (Gloucestershire)