Tolkienesque Waldrom gives Leicester look of European lords
Leicester 46 Scarlets 10
There are 24 teams in the Heineken Cup. No more than a fortnight into the tournament, it is transparently clear that two-thirds of them are making up the numbers. Leinster and Munster are obvious title contenders; as ever, Toulouse and Biarritz also have a legitimate interest, as do Clermont Auvergne. Ospreys? They are just about relevant. Racing Metro? No one quite knows, and until the French league leaders put their first XV on the field, they will remain a mystery. As for the rest, forget it. The rest, that is, except the usual suspects from Leicester. Once again, Leicester will summon the furies of hell and see where those furies take them.
Welford Road was an absolute bear pit yesterday: between them, the Tigers' coaches Richard Cockerill and Matt O'Connor generated more heat and noise than 82,000 England supporters ever produce at Twickenham, and even if the visitors had been tougher, nastier and less weak-minded than Scarlets, they would still have found it a scary place to be.
The Welshmen are fast building a reputation as one of the best counter-attacking sides in Europe, but as they had no way of countering the Leicester pack in any phase of the forward game anywhere on the field, their opportunities to attack could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If they suffer a worse hiding than this any time soon, they will be within their rights to ask the almighty what it is he has against them.
At the heart of the Midlanders' exceptional performance was Thomas Waldrom, their summer signing from All Black country. A useful career as a Super 14 back-rower with the Canterbury Crusaders, who win that elite competition at least as often as not, is testament to his powers, but it is doubtful whether the Christchurch faithful ever witnessed a better performance than the one he delivered here.
The try he scored eight minutes into the second half was the icing on the cake, but as Ben Youngs was largely responsible for it – the scrum-half's tap-and-go routine resulted in what might be described as a parting of the Scarlet Sea – it is reasonable to suggest that the accuracy of his offloading and the physicality of his work at close quarters gave the newcomer more satisfaction.
Somehow, Waldrom cuts a Tolkienesque figure. Not exactly a midget at 6ft on the button, he is far from the most vertically blessed of No 8s – indeed, he looks wider than he is tall – and while there is no sign of a long beard or a pointy hat, still less an axe, there is definitely a whiff of the Misty Mountains about him. What is more, he enjoys a bit of "how's your father" if any of the opposition are daft enough to start mixing it. Where was Lord of the Rings filmed, again? That's right. New Zealand.
With the Argentinian prop Marcos Ayerza and the Argentina-born Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni operating in Waldrom's slipstream and the supremely athletic Tom Croft continuing his uncanny impersonation of the young Lawrence Dallaglio by materialising in parts of the field other loose forwards seldom reach, the cumulative effect was overpowering. The Scarlets forwards fronted up in ones and twos – Rob McCusker worked his socks off in the first 40 minutes; Josh Turnbull earned his spurs during the second – but they needed to do things by the legion just to give themselves a puncher's chance. By the end, they were a rabble. The end of the first half-hour, that is.
All things considered, the England stand-off Toby Flood enjoyed something of an armchair ride on his second appearance of the season. (He ended his first, at Northampton on the opening day of the Premiership campaign, with a mangled left knee.) Watched by a trio of England coaches – John Wells, Brian Smith and Graham Rowntree, former Tigers all, were in attendance, looking very stern and uncompromising in that uniquely Leicesterish way – he occasionally betrayed a touch of ring-rust. Generally speaking, though, he played with considerable imagination while bringing shape and tempo to his back division.
"It helps to come back on a nice sunny day, under a blue sky, with the forwards in that kind of mood," he said. "Whatever adjustments the International Rugby Board make to the refereeing of the tackle area – and I think I'll be well into retirement by the time they finally decide what they want – we'll always do our best to make it a contest. If we can't put hands on the ball at the breakdown, we'll do it another way." Whatever approach they take, they never seem to stop swamping, or swarming all over, the opposition.
As for the question of who will wear the No 10 shirt when England take on New Zealand in a little under three weeks' time, Flood was unwilling to be drawn. He is the incumbent, and there were mutterings from the England hierarchy just recently that they want him to stay that way, but Jonny Wilkinson's form for Toulon has been decent enough and public opinion will demand that a proper discussion be had.
"I keep myself distant from all that," said Flood. "If I didn't, I'd spend my life reading the newspapers, looking over my shoulder and wondering what's going on. Jonny is enjoying his rugby in France, and when he's enjoying life, he plays some terrific stuff. Me? I'll just concentrate on my own game."
Quite what the Scarlets should concentrate on is anyone's guess. "That was a big, big lesson for us," admitted their coach, Nigel Davies, who fully realises that success in this competition depends on a pack willing and able to stand up to the things the Leicesters of this world throw at them. The visitors' early try from deep was a beautiful construction, with Turnbull, Sean Lamont, Regan King and then Morgan Stoddart all doing the right thing at the right moment. But once Castrogiovanni answered in more prosaic style five minutes later, the contest moved inexorably into "dead parrot" territory. For Scarlets, read Norwegian Blue.
Leicester: Tries Croft 2, Castrogiovanni, Youngs, Waldrom, Smith; Conversions Flood 5; Penalties Flood 2. Scarlets: Try Stoddart; Conversion Jones; Penalty Jones.
Leicester G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, M Smith, A Allen (M Tuilagi 59), A Tuilagi; T Flood (W Twelvetrees 72), B Youngs (J Grindal 55); M Ayerza (B Stankovich 63), G Chuter (J Duffy 76), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole 55), E Slater, G Skivington, T Croft (S Mafi 67), C Newby (B Woods 63), T Waldrom.
Scarlets R Priestland; M Stoddart, G Maule, R King (S Williams 70), S Lamont; S Jones, M Roberts (T Knoyle 51); I Thomas (R Jones 70), M Rees (capt, K Owens 63), R Thomas (D Manu 40+1), L Reed, V Cooper (J Edwards 59), J Turnbull, R McCusker, D Lyons (D Welch 67).
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).
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