So it's true: Leicester do indeed play their rugby on a Subbuteo pitch. When Toby Flood, the England outside-half, lined up a penalty shot from fully 57 metres at a critical juncture of a game that had spun on its axis from the opening minutes, the smart money said he would fall short by plenty. The smart money was wrong. Flood not only nailed his kick, tilting the contest decisively towards his side in the process – he absolutely creamed it. Never before had he struck a ball so far in a match situation.
Generously, Flood credited the manufacturer's product rather than his own formidable hoofing power. "Everyone likes the balls we're using in these games: they fly and travel so well that it's always in the back of your mind that you might have four or five extra metres in the bank," he said.
"I remember kicking a long one for Newcastle against Leicester back in the day, but this one was probably my best in terms of distance."
Over the last fortnight, the great and good of England's biggest club have been in an advanced state of collective apoplexy over the decision of the 2015 World Cup organisers to reject Welford Road as a venue, primarily on what might be called "ground grounds" – or, to put it another way, because they feel the pitch is too small. The Midlanders are so infuriated by this unexpected slap in the face, they have managed to get the issue raised in the House of Commons. Flood's feat yesterday, astonishing as it was, may not have helped their argument.
There was more to this compelling piece of Heineken Cup theatre than mere feet and inches, however, for the two sides were perfectly matched, in emotional firepower as well as weaponry of the physical kind. The hosts, pointless after their first-round defeat in Toulouse, needed a victory – any sort of victory – to stay afloat, while Ospreys, the best side in Wales and phantoms of long standing in the Leicester psyche, left Swansea confident in their ability to land a sickening blow on their opponents and confirm their own candidacy as serious title contenders as a consequence.
For almost half an hour they did pretty much everything right, with Ashley Beck freeing Hanno Dirksen up the right with a sweet pass off the left hand. Dirksen was hit fast and hard, but a surge from his forwards took him all the way to the line, where Ryan Jones capitalised with a short-range touchdown. Dan Biggar, who kicked every bit as well as Flood, landed the conversion and added a penalty from halfway to open up a 10-point lead.
Had it not been for Dan Cole's authority at the set-piece, Leicester might not have recovered. The England tight-head prop was inspired by the close proximity of Adam Jones, his most obvious rival for a Lions Test place against Australia next summer, and emerged as the clear winner in the grunt-and-groan department: he scrummaged Ryan Bevington into the cooler after 34 minutes and when the Wales international was substituted nine minutes after the break – by then, his inability to absorb the pressure applied by the Leicester man was transparently obvious – the demolition job was complete.
"In England terms, Dan is the number one," said Richard Cockerill, the Leicester coach and a Test front-rower of yore, in tones that brooked no argument. "There's no one close to him. I can't think of a more important player for England at the moment. And to be fair, I think that's the case here at Leicester too. It's taken Dan a while to get the big starts ahead of Martin Castrogiovanni, but he's there now."
Strange to relate, Leicester did not find themselves in clear blue water until long after Cole's departure. But thanks to their scrummager-in-chief, they had found a way of subduing the Ospreys' forward effort and laid the foundations for victory – not least by providing scrum half Ben Youngs plenty of front-foot ball. It was Youngs who found Manu Tuilagi with the scoring pass for Leicester's opening try, following significant contributions from Flood and the powerhouse Fijian wing Vereniki Goneva, and he was at the heart of the attacking waves that threatened to wash Ospreys away in the minutes after the interval.
But for Biggar's accuracy from the tee the Midlanders would have been home free by the hour mark, but the Welsh stand-off's regular penalty successes kept his side all square at 19-apiece moving into the last quarter.
Then came Flood's penalty from the back end of beyond and when the same player intercepted Biggar's long pass just inside his own half and outpaced the cover to finish at the sticks, the argument was over. All that interested Leicester now was the possibility of a try-scoring bonus, and their Tongan flanker Steve Mafi turned it into reality.
First, the rangy blind-side specialist somehow made sense of a frenzied, error-strewn few seconds of high rugby comedy to send Youngs scampering away for try number three. Then, he showed strength in staying infield despite the attentions of half of West Wales, thereby handing Tuilagi the opportunity to top and tail things in the 80th minute, only for Flood to then hit the post. On this day, he can be forgiven.
Leicester: Tries Tuilagi 2, Flood, B Youngs; Conversions Flood 2; Penalties Flood 5. Ospreys: Try R Jones; Conversion Biggar; Penalties Biggar 5.
Leicester S Hamilton; N Morris, M Tuilagi, A Allen, V Goneva (M Smith, 64); T Flood, B Youngs; L Mulipola (M Ayerza, 49), T Youngs, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 53), G Kitchener (L Deacon, 53), G Parling, S Mafi, T Waldrom, J Crane (capt).
Ospreys R Fussell; H Dirksen, A Bishop, A Beck, E Walker; D Biggar, K Fotuali'i (R Webb 70); R Bevington (D Jones, 49), R Hibbard, A Jones, A-W Jones, I Evans, R Jones, J Tipuric, J Thomas (J Bearman, 54). Referee: R Poite (France)
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