The nine-month slog that constitutes a Premiership season can claim its unpredictable victims, as the former champions Wasps have shown in recent days, and though this match had a predictable outcome there were some mildly gripping plot twists along the way. Leicester went to the top of the table last season – and stayed there to win the title through the play-offs – with a 34-point thumping of Wasps here in mid-January. They are nicely placed for a repeat after this eighth league win on the spin. But the scrummaging dominance they enjoyed in that meeting 13 months ago was not repeated here and Wasps were praiseworthily obdurate in defence after a difficult week.
Shaun Edwards, the head coach who selected the Wasps team on Thursday, the day after the directorof rugby Tony Hanks was shown the door, certainly thought so.
"We deserved a bonus point for the effort, intensity and downright doggedness of the players out there," he said. The Leicester director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, saw it differently.
"It was almost rugby union versus rugby league at some stages," he said. "We scored two tries to zip against a team that didn't really come to play." Cockerill did concede that Wasps "D'd up well", which is coach-speak for defending – although he clearly felt those Ds might also have stood for "didn't do much in attack".
It was, of course, too late for Hanks, and it is thought the tepidity of Wasps' displays against Exeter, Harlequins, Glasgow and Gloucester was costly to him. As at Adams Park last week, an interception undermined Wasps. Here, when Dave Walder, the fly-half, went for a risky miss-pass to Tom Lindsay across his 22 in the 11th minute, it was snaffled and run to the posts by Leicester's former Wasps No 10, Jeremy Staunton. Well, "once a Wasp, always a Wasp", is the club's mantra, so perhaps Staunton knew what was coming. The Irishman kicked the conversion and a penalty and Leicester led 13-6.
Staunton had kicked the opening points after taking a shoulder charge from Serge Betsen in the third minute before Walder – one of three Wasps backs reportedly considering a move to Japan – booted his side in front with two penalties. Wasps put in to the first scrum on 17 minutes and it wheeled clockwise, which made Joe Worsley's decision to try a run open from No 8 questionable. He was lucky that the home side were penalised for not releasing. Walder's kick trimmed Tigers' lead to 13-9 but it was soon 18-9 thanks to Steve Mafi's try. After Manu Tuilagi's burst on the right, the lock scored on the left with a pass from Craig Newby. Mafi loped easily past Ben Broster and Richard Haughton.
Six minutes before the interval, Wasps' front row stood up. The penalty from 35 metres went to touch, the line-out drive was pulled down and the Tigers chose a scrum, five metres out. A foregone conclusion? No way: silent shudders all around Welford Road, in fact, as the ball squirted out, safe, on Wasps' side.
The simultaneous loss to Wasps of Worsley, one of their most experienced forwards, with what Edwards called a "neck and back problem", did not help. Particularly not with Thomas Waldrom and Newby in their full, harrying and tackling pomp in the Tigers back row. Wasps say they will appoint an interim director of rugby to the end of the season; Edwards is in charge of on-pitch affairs until then but other clubs have been more busilyrecruiting players.
Staunton kicked his third penalty in the 44th minute and when Walder replied three minutes later you would have got huge odds on there being no further score. Walder had another jittery moment when Newby charged him down, preceding a move of 17 phases by the Tigers without a breakthrough. As what could be fairly described as a 40-minute siegeensued, only duff passes and Wasps obduracy kept Leicester out.
Newby went off to give England's Tom Croft a first appearance in 10 weeks since he fractured a shoulder blade. The lanky flanker's broken-field pace and line-out prowess are arguably more valuable to his country than the skills of another recent absentee, Bath's Lewis Moody, but the latter is reckoned more likely to be recalled against France. "Twenty-five minutes after three months out probably isn't enough to go into a big Test match, but that's Martin Johnson's call," said Cockerill.
So on an evening growing ever more dank, it took Waldrom striking the bar with a drop-goal shot to raise a smile. Mind you, as the Tiger-ites trooped home, they were happy with their team's 10-point overnight lead in the Premiership – and another big step towards a home semi-final.
Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; J Staunton, J Grindal; B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 51), G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni, S Mafi, G Skivington, C Newby (capt; T Croft, 56), T Waldrom, B Woods.
London Wasps M van Gisbergen; R Haughton, D Waldouck, R Flutey, B Jacobs; D Walder, N Berry (J Simpson, 61); T Payne, T Lindsay (J Ward, 70), B Broster, M Veale, R Birkett (capt), J Launchbury, J Worsley (J Cannon, 36), S Betsen.
Referee A Small (London).
Tries: Staunton, Mafi
Pens: Staunton 3
Pens: Walder 4