Leicester ease past Exiles with scrum power

London Irish 14 Leicester 23
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The Independent Online

Geordan Murphy was one of 10 Leicester players away on international duty last month, but the champions have a time-honoured devotion to strength in depth. The Premiership pacesetters Northampton followed suit last summer, adding numbers to their squad at the cost of a couple of star names. As the East Midlands clubs stand first and second in the table, and collected crucial victories in November, should we conclude they have the strongest personnel, top to bottom?

"I don't know about that, but I think we're very happy with the squad we have," said Murphy, who was with Ireland the week before this momentous defeat of London Irish. "When the internationals are on, guys come in and give their all. Then obviously people get relegated to the bench or move over. But that's what we expect. If you pull on the shirt, you want to get a win and it doesn't matter the level or circumstances. The returning guys thanked the others."

Murphy said Leicester were "silently creeping up the table" and it is true the likes of Marcos Ayerza and Dan Cole let their scrummaging do the talking; they savaged Irish at the set-piece. But hookers are the foremen of the front-row union and George Chuter said: "We spend a lot of time on scrumming teams to death. We could make do with nine players on the field." It was only partly tongue in cheek, and Leicester's head coach and former hooker Richard Cockerill exulted "come on!" at the penalty try which settled the contest four minutes before the end.

Irish's coach, Toby Booth, promised to re-examine his previously well-performing scrum before their Heineken Cup ties with Toulon. The No 8 Chris Hala'ufia deserved a medal for continually making ground despite picking up from a base of shifting sands. Three players feeling their way back from Tests or injury – Seilala Mapusua, Steffon Armitage and Sailosi Tagicakibau – made a second-half impact but it was never quite enough to overtake Leicester's 9-3 interval lead.

Topsy Ojo's 46th-minute try for Irish, from Jonathan Joseph's break and Ryan Lamb's deft chip, was quickly cancelled out when Thomas Waldrom finished an overlap at the left-hand corner, thanks in part to Murphy's clever dummy to outwit Ojo. Leading 16-8, Leicester conceded Lamb's second and third penalty goals but finished powerfully at a series of scrums in the Irish 22, with Martin Castrogiovanni on for Cole as a fearsome reinforcement.

Tom Croft will miss the next few weeks with a fractured shoulder, but his England colleague Toby Flood should be fit to return at fly-half for Leicester's Heineken Cup match in Perpignan on Saturday. Tigers have taken a solid seven points from their league matches at Northampton, Saracens, Wasps, Gloucester and Irish. The remaining away trips are likely to yield an even better return.

For Irish, Tagicakibau has just signed for four more years, spurning offers from France. "Sometimes things are done for less than money," said Booth. "That suggests rugby is still in a good state and that's great. It's one up for England versus France in one aspect but we probably need four years to match two years' money in France."

Scorers: London Irish: Try Ojo; Penalties Lamb 3.

Leicester Tigers: Tries Waldrom, penalty try; Conversions Twelvetrees 2; Penalties Twelvetrees 3.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo (S Tagicakibau, 66), E Seveali'i, D Bowden (S Mapusua, 55), J Joseph; R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt; A Corbisiero, 66), D Paice (B Blaney, 17), F Rautenbach (P Ion, 55), N Kennedy, K Roche (M Garvey, 55), G Stowers (S Armitage, 61), R Thorpe, C Hala'ufia.

Leicester Tigers: G Murphy (capt; M Tuilagi, 77); S Hamilton, M Smith, A Allen, A Tuilagi; B Twelvetrees, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 61), L Deacon (E Slater, 78), G Skivington, T Waldrom (S Mafi, 74), C Newby, J Crane.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).