A decade or so ago, when Richard Cockerill was still a bullet-headed front-row troublemaker with a handy pair of fists and a penchant for upsetting All Blacks, he was asked where, in a list of his beloved Leicester's 100 defining characteristics, he might place sentimentality. "101st," came the reply. It has not been a good few years for sentimentality, for it is nowhere near that high now. There were a number of reasons why the Tigers won their sixth Guinness Premiership title at Twickenham on Saturday, many of them to do with London Irish, but that hard streak of theirs was at the heart of it.
Cockerill is head coach at Welford Road these days, and during the build-up to this final, he found himself wrestling with the kind of issue that affects all those who take on the task of managing people with whom they once served in the trenches. Martin Corry, a warrior soul who stands alongside Dean Richards and Martin Johnson as one of the most revered Tigers of the modern era, was fit to play. The question Cockerill had to ask himself was whether he was good enough to play ahead of Tom Croft, or Craig Newby or Jordan Crane. And the conclusion he reached was of the negative variety.
This decision caused him all manner of grief, for Corry was within a few days of retirement and would not have another opportunity to savour the Twickenham experience. "Martin and I are close friends, our families are friendly and my heart said 'pick him'," Cockerill admitted after watching his side chisel out a one-point victory that looked less than likely at the end of the opening half. "But it's my job to make these calls on a professional basis, and my head told me it wouldn't be the right thing.
"Circumstances conspired against him: he'd been suspended, had come back and played for 60 minutes, then picked up an injury. His body isn't what it was and when a rugby player's body gives up on him, it's very difficult. He understands that, and understands why I left him out. He could have sulked and stayed at home, but he's so special to this team that we all wanted him here – not just sitting in the stand, but being as actively involved as possible. It was an emotional moment, seeing him lift the trophy." They have some romanticism about them after all, these Leicester types, if only the faintest of traces.
It was Geordan Murphy's idea to have Corry receive the silverware, captain for the day making way for captain of the club as a mark of respect. It was entirely appropriate, not least because Corry must have recognised something of himself in his successor's contribution to the victory, even though the two men spent their careers poles apart, both positionally and instinctively. Murphy, blessed with the full range of twinkle-toed trickery, had no choice but to abandon the Flash Harry stuff and take up the cudgels as the Exiles squeezed Leicester at both scrum and line-out, dominating territory and possession for long periods. By the final whistle, he must have felt as though he had spent 80 minutes in the dark dungeon of the second row, where Corry has been known to incarcerate himself.
On this basis, Sam Vesty must have felt in pieces. The outside-half was not remotely pleased with his tactical kicking and had one or two issues with his game management – "It was pretty crappy, to be honest with you," he said, bluntly – but his defensive display was nothing short of extraordinary. If London Irish threw the unusually substantial Seilala Mapusua at him once, they did it a dozen times, generally within a few metres of the Leicester line. On each and every occasion, Vesty stopped the Samoan dead in his tracks and dumped him on his rear end.
"He's a big bloke, that's for sure," Vesty said. "I voted for him as players' player of the year. Maybe if I'd told him, he wouldn't have picked on me so much." As for this weekend, when Leicester meet Leinster in the Heineken Cup final and the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy will be doing their worst... "Well, we'll have to be a hell of a lot better than we were out there," he admitted. "But this is probably the perfect result for us: a dirty, horrible win. On the one hand, we have something to show for our season; on the other, we won't spend the next few days congratulating ourselves on how well we played."
Neither will London Irish, despite a forward effort that rocked the Tigers to their very core. Playing behind a tight five that spent much of the contest on the front foot – no mean achievement against the likes of Marcos Ayerza, Julian White and Ben Kay – the loose forwards Steffon Armitage and Chris Hala'ufia threatened to win it for the Exiles. But there was an obvious lack of patience about their rugby, together with outbreaks of panic at important moments that let Leicester off the hook. Quite why Paul Hodgson moved the ball from the final scrum of the first half as early as he did when a pushover try looked inevitable will remain one of the mysteries of the age.
Wasted opportunities were beginning to get Mike Catt's goat long before the Premiership's senior citizen dished out a general rollicking following the surrender of another prime attacking position just shy of the hour mark, and his mood worsened when Ayoola Erinle and Matt Smith gave the aggressive Crane a shot at a close-range try. The No 8 duly obliged, stretching over to the satisfaction of the television match official, and at that moment, Leicester glimpsed victory on the horizon.
Would Corry have scored that try? Probably. Will he go to his grave cursing Cockerill for denying him the chance to score it? Probably not. Champion players have the same use for self-pity as champion clubs have for sentiment. Which is to say, no use at all.
Leicester: Try Crane; Conversion Dupuy; Penalty Dupuy. London Irish Penalties D Armitage 2; Drop goal Hewat.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, A Erinle, D Hipkiss, J Murphy (M Smith, 22); S Vesty, J Dupuy; M Ayerza, G Chuter (B Kayser, 58), J White (D Cole, 80), T Croft, B Kay, C Newby, B Woods (L Moody, 61), J Crane.
London Irish: P Hewat (E Seveali'i 66); A Thompstone (T Homer, h-t), D Armitage, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; M Catt, P Hodgson; C Dermody (G Johnson, 77), D Coetzee (J Buckland, 76), R Skuse (A Corbisiero, 66), J Hudson, R Casey (capt), D Danaher (R Thorpe, h-t), S Armitage, C Hala'ufia.
Referee: W Barnes (London).
Premiership Team of the season
15 Olly Morgan (Gloucester): Sometimes too brave for his own good, generally too good for Gloucester.
14 Joe Maddock (Bath): Intelligent, inventive and often inspired. The most reliable wing in the country.
13 Delon Armitage (London Irish): Even better at centre than at full-back, which is saying plenty.
12 Seilala Mapusua (London Irish): Scary Samoan centres are nothing new, but this one set fresh standards.
11 David Lemi (Bristol): The team were horribly outclassed, but somehow their wing kept scoring tries.
10 Sam Vesty (Leicester): From forgotten man to talk of the town in five short months.
9 Julien Dupuy (Leicester): So very French, so very Leicester. A game-breaker in big matches.
1 Marcos Ayerza (Leicester): Crikey, what a talent. One day, he'll be the world's best prop.
2 Gary Botha (Harlequins): A slow burner, now fully alight. The Springboks' loss is Quins' gain.
3 Euan Murray (Northampton): Fitness willing, he'll be almost as good as his supporters make out.
4 Tom Croft (Leicester): The most complete English rugby athlete since Dallaglio. Multi-positional, multi-everything.
5 Geoff Parling (Newcastle): Leicester have signed him up for next season, which tells a tale.
6 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins): Mighty engine, huge work rate, appears to enjoy a tackle or two.
7 Steffon Armitage (London Irish): He may not look the part, but he plays it to perfection.
8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Sale): A reminder of why Argentina finished third at the last World Cup.Reuse content