Tigers' lack of tries tests patience of the faithful
Leicester 15 Newcastle 6
Monday 21 September 2009
Even in Leicester, a city unrivalled in its enthusiasm for team sport, the prawn-sandwich syndrome appears to have taken hold. Welford Road's new £15m stand, packed to the rafters with 10,000 souls, was a sight to behold as the champions played their first home fixture since April, but it took only 40 minutes of tryless fare for some of them to lose interest.
There was a mass rush for the corporate vol-au-vents at the half-time whistle, and the moneyed classes were in no hurry to return. Roy Keane would have had something to say on the subject. Where was Austin Healey when we needed him?
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the rugby they continued to play made the finger buffet seem more attractive by the minute. Indeed, they might have had more chance of scoring a try had they traded in their back division for half-a-dozen lightly grilled mushrooms and a stick of celery.
It is now well over four hours since they crossed the opposition goal-line in a serious game of rugby – indeed, they have yet to register a five-pointer this season – and while their coach, Richard Cockerill, asserted that "nine points from three matches means there's a lot of teams in a worse position than us", it did not require the hearing powers of a bat to pick up mutterings of discontent among the rank-and-file supporters.
Cockerill added, not unreasonably, that while the acute shortage of tries was becoming a "bugbear", things would be very different when the likes of Toby Flood, Sam Vesty, Dan Hipkiss and Alesana Tuilagi regained their fitness. But Flood, for one, will not be around until November, by which time Leicester will have completed a third of their campaign. With the honourable exception of Anthony Allen, who did some nice things at inside centre on Saturday night, they are firing an awful lot of blanks.
The chief fascination here was how much forward pressure Newcastle could withstand before their walls came crashing down, Jericho-like. As it turned out, falling masonry was conspicuous by its absence. The Tynesiders scrummaged well at times, especially while the All Black prop Carl Hayman was a going concern, and worked hard to re-establish themselves at the line-out after a rough 50 minutes or so.
What was more, they defended with a passion that has not always accompanied them on their trips away from Kingston Park. At one point, they knocked their opponents out of the in-goal area and back to the 22-metre line with try-saving tackle after try-saving tackle.
Steve Bates, their director of rugby, talked a good deal afterwards about pride: his own in watching the team shut out the Tigers without the services of their first-choice half-backs, Micky Young and Jimmy Gopperth; his team's in pulling together for the entire 80 minutes, many of which they spent without the ball. Newcastle shed 23 players at the end of last season and recruited 17 new ones. If this level of unity can be developed in so short a space of time, there is every chance that this season's relegation scrap will happen without them.
"I'm pleased that we've become so unified so quickly, but if I'm honest I'm not surprised," Bates said.
"We set out with the intention of bringing in the kind of characters who would work hard for the club – people who perhaps hadn't had the chances they felt they deserved elsewhere, allied to some very talented and hungry young players from the academy. There has been a great sense of togetherness since the start of pre-season and we showed that here. The question is: how many of these games can we absorb? People gave a lot of themselves out there, yet we've come away with nothing and it will probably be Wednesday before we can start preparing for the Harlequins match on Friday night."
Both Young, a highly rated scrum-half currently struggling with elbow problems, and Gopperth, a Super 14 stand-off from New Zealand whose ankle injury forced him to withdraw from this contest, are likely to be fit for the visit of the troubled Londoners, but even if Bates decides to give both men another week's grace, Newcastle will not be bereft in the key decision-making positions. Hall Charlton did more than most to cramp Leicester's style at the weekend while Rob Miller, fresh out of his teens, played the coolest of hands at No 10. Were he an Australian, he'd have been capped by now. "Rob? He's a good lad," acknowledged Bates, who might have earned himself a masters degree in understatement on the strength of those words alone.
Miller is more than good, as he proved with one magical little grubber kick that left Leicester's entire back division up a gum tree, and given his club's track record in producing half-decent players in this particular position – Flood was created up there in the North-east, as was Jonny Whatsisname – there is every chance he will realise his potential.
Newcastle do not have the Heineken Cup to worry about, so Bates can indulge in a little "squad management" over the next couple of months. Three of the next four Premiership games are at Kingston Park, 12 points will be there for the taking and a snug mid-table position up for grabs.
The Tynesiders lost some handy personnel back in the spring – Tom May, Jamie Noon, David Wilson, Geoff Parling, Phil Dowson, that Wilkinson bloke – but sometimes, a change is as good as a rest.
Leicester: Penalties Staunton 5. Newcastle: Penalties Miller 2.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, M Smith (A Mauger, 55), A Allen, J Murphy; J Staunton, H Ellis (B Youngs, 61); M Ayerza, M Davies, M Castrogiovanni (J White, 61), L Deacon (G Parling, 61), B Kay, T Croft, C Newby, B Deacon (B Pienaar, 70).
Newcastle: A Tait; G Bobo, R Vickerman, T Tu'ipulotu (C Amesbury, 70), T Biggs; R Miller, H Charlton (M Pilgrim, 80); J Golding, R Vickers (M Thompson, h-t), C Hayman (capt, M Ward, h-t; L Ovens, 68), J Hudson, M Sorenson (T Swinson, 49), B Wilson, E Williamson, F Levi (A Balding, 49).
Referee: A Small (London).
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