England's finest Leicester and Saracens deliver bore draw and missed kicks


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The Independent Online

It was bad timing for two of the lustiest sabre rattlers in the English clubs' battle for more influence over the European landscape to produce a duff 9-9 draw with the incision of a blunted butter knife.

Leicester and Saracens have, for a variety of reasons, the financial clout to field a good proportion of the Premiership's top players – the kind of clout that makes them think they can lead the Irish, Welsh and others by the nose in negotiations over the future shape of the Heineken Cup. But if you were looking for fulfilling rugby you had to avert your gaze at Wembley on Saturday.

The get-out-of-jail-free card that guarantees at least a temporary thrill in these tight encounters is the last-ditch winning score but each fly-half – Saracens' second-half substitute Charlie Hodgson and Leicester's Toby Flood – made botched attempts at dropped goals in the final five minutes.

There was a similarly fraught league meeting between these teams at Watford the season before last, when Geordan Murphy wrested the drop-kick responsibility from Flood and succeeded, but the Leicester captain went off early this time, with suspected damaged ligaments after jarring his right knee while tackling Sarries' Chris Ashton into touch.

Wembley's grass extends only a few centimetres beyond the touchline and Murphy fell on to the hard artificial surface surrounding it. The artificial pitch being installed at Saracens' new stadium a few miles away in Mill Hill will be more yielding.

Saracens came into the season with their squad fully appraised of a two-month plan of rotating players in key positions: a sensible and sensitive ploy in many ways but immediately questionable when Hodgson, who had played well in the opening two wins over London Irish and Sale, was obliged to pass the No 10 jersey to Owen Farrell, who promptly had a nightmare of a kicking performance, clumping four penalties out of five off target in the first half that ended with Leicester 9-3 up.

Pavlovian punters waved their flags when "Stand Up for the Saracens" was broadcast after seemingly inconsequential incidents. They kindly refrained from booing the shatteringly incompetent handling, though doubtless the perpetrators would blame the pace of the game.

The most significant contributions amid the general morass were by Julian Salvi on Leicester's open-side flank and the Saracens back row, who bludgeoned the breakdown and helped their midfielders hunt down the wider raids of Tigers' Manu Tuilagi and Vereniki Goneva. Much as Ashton and Tuilagi tried, it was not a day for spectacular line breaks.

Scott Hamilton, the New Zealander who did most to cover Murphy's departure from the back three, predicted a different display when Leicester host the champions Harlequins at Welford Road this weekend. "We didn't think Saracens were rolling away at the tackle and they probably felt the same about us," said Hamilton, partly excusing the referee Martin Fox, who had stepped in for the injured Greg Garner. "They had some big boys flying in there, some falling off their feet, some on the wrong side. Saracens are probably one of the most aggressive teams defensively and we got stung a few times."


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Saracens: Penalties Farrell, Hodgson 2. Leicester: Penalties Flood 3.

Saracens A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt, J Short (C Wyles 59); O Farrell (C Hodgson 50), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 50); M Vunipola (R Gill 59), S Brits (J Smit 59), C Nieto (P du Plessis 48), S Borthwick (capt; A Hargreaves 27-32), M Botha (Hargreaves 65), K Brown, J Wray (W Fraser 70), E Joubert.

Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt; M Smith 14); S Hamilton, M Tuilagi, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood, S Harrison; L Mulipola (B Stankovich 64), T Youngs (G Chuter 70), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 50), G Kitchener, G Parling, S Mafi, J Salvi, T Waldrom (J Crane 61).

Referee M Fox (Leicestershire).