Staunton's boot breaks new ground
Leicester 15 Newcastle 6
Sunday 20 September 2009
With a new grandstand housing almost as many spectators as some of their rivals' entire grounds, Leicester clearly believe size is important.
The motto around the expanding Welford Road right now is, instead, that tries aren't everything. Jeremy Staunton, the champions' fly-half while Toby Flood and Sam Vesty are injured, has scored every one of their 42 points this season with kicks, and if there hasn't been a five-pointer in sight it hasn't prevented the Tigers taking their customary place in the upper reaches of the table.
A bonus-point defeat at Sale and a win at Harlequins had been a solid season's start before yesterday but they wanted more than that on a gala day at this famous old ground. An all-time Tigers XV was gathered to open a Walk of Legends leading to the new Caterpillar Stand, which has raised capacity from 17,500 to 24,000. Martin Johnson, Austin Healey, Steve Redfern and Dean Richards sent apologies – Richards lying low while the Bloodgate furore dies down – but all the new seats were taken. What did the extra punters used to do with their Saturday afternoons? There must be 6,500 front gardens going untended, or 6,500 garden centre visits not being made.
The stand's official opening will be when the Springboks play here in November – a reminder that crowds of 25,000 shoehorned in here to see touring teams take on East Midlands combinations before and soon after the war. The aspect of the old asphalt bank and wooden stand has changed; as for the expectation, that has gone through the cantilevered roof.
Newcastle's recent revamping has all been in their squad. Eighteen months ago here they fielded their four England backs – Wilkinson, Flood, Noon and Tait – and shipped 41 points in the first hour. That quartet have moved on, while the scrum-half James Grindal, lock Geoff Parling and flanker Ben Woods have been signed by Leicester, though only Parling was on yesterday's team-sheet. There was no chance to judge the New Zealander Jimmy Gopperth, signed as Wilkinson's replacement, as he failed a late fitness test on an injured ankle. A little like Wilkinson, then.
If there was anything faulty with Newcastle's line-out, Leicester had Tom Croft to profit. A couple of throws were stolen early on, while it was even-stevens at the scrum: a decent nudge for Newcastle's renowned tighthead Carl Hayman here, a powerful response from Marcos Ayerza and his Tigers there. At the first scrum, Leicester put Anthony Allen, a centre, as first receiver and moved Staunton further out. Allen's jinks were a notable feature as Leicester – who led 9-3 after 25 minutes with three penalties by Staunton to one from Gopperth's stand-in, Rob Miller – built the better field position.
If the first-half penalty count went against Newcastle, neither side fared well on the knock-on count or passing-to-an-opponent count. As is his wont, the Tigers full-back, Geordan Murphy, employed no-look passes, quickly taken kicks and sleight of hand in his attempts to break the game up. Staunton's fourth penalty, from close to halfway, edged his side further ahead on the stroke of half-time.
By that stage, Leicester had broken their Premiership record of 217 tryless minutes, set in September and October 1999. Mind you, they won the title that season. So who needs tries?
Craig Newby, another former Falcon, and Matt Smith got very close to breaking the duck as the Tigers roared into the second half. A ruck on the Newcastle line was repelled and Harry Ellis, the Leicester scrum-half, chose to wait for a drive when perhaps a pass would have unlocked the gate.
Miller kicked a penalty in the 53rd minute to make it 12-6 and Leicester's problem appeared to be a lack of momentum at the breakdown. The refereeing dictat against players charging in to clear out may be preying on forwards' minds. Newcastle tackled like demons, even after replacing half their pack by the 48th minute, including Hayman, who tweaked a hamstring.
Then there was the referee, Andrew Small, getting in the way. Just when a dart by Allen had broken Newcastle's cover, Staunton's pass bounced off Mr Small. He had to call a scrum and nip Croft's scoring dive in the bud. A few seconds later, Staunton was held up at the posts; that was followed by a line-out drive coming to nothing. The legends must have been wishing they were at home watching Merlin instead.
Staunton's penalty on 61 minutes went a long way to the win. There was almost a death wish among both sides near the end as promising situations frittered away. So no grandstand finish, but four more points to Leicester.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, M Smith (A Mauger, 54), A Allen, J Murphy; J Staunton, H Ellis (B Youngs, 59); M Ayerza, M Davies, M Castrogiovanni (J White, 59), L Deacon (G Parling, 59), B Kay, T Croft, B Deacon (B Pienaar, 67), C Newby.
Newcastle: A Tait; G Bobo, R Vickerman, T Tu'ipulotu (C Amesbury, 65), T Biggs; R Miller, H Charlton (C Pilgrim, 74); J Golding, R Vickers (M Thompson, 40), C Hayman (capt; M Ward, 40; L Ovens, 65), J Hudson, M Sorenson (T Swinson, 48), B Wilson, F Levi (A Balding, 48), E Williamson.
Referee: A Small (London).
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