If Stade Français had the cancan girls – more a distraction than an inspiration, judging by the Parisians' performance at the weekend – Perpignan had the lingerie. Philip Burger, a South African seven-a-side specialist from Pretoria who may not be the toughest full-back ever raised in Springbok country, took the field at Welford Road in a pair of the nattiest black tights, thereby attracting the attention of 17,000 wolf-whistling Midlanders who made it their business to put him off his stroke. Predictably, the poor petal suffered the torments of hell, for which the home side were duly thankful.
Leicester tend not to go in for this sort of stuff: whoever supplies their match-day kit, it isn't Ann Summers. Julian White in gloves and frilly knickers? Please. When it comes to added extras, the tighthead prop from Devon restricts himself to a pair of contact lenses – perhaps not an absolute necessity for an individual who spends his working life in the darkened recesses of the scrum, but who's arguing? Unlike Burger, the former England front-rower commanded respect. He was, to borrow a striking phrase from one of the travelling Frenchmen, "the king of the field".
How England could use him at the moment. Deep in his 36th year, White is significantly less mobile than he was at 26 (even at his quickest, he was no threat to Usain Bolt) and he turned away from international rugby some 18 months ago by opting out of the World Cup squad, apparently to spend more time on his farm. All the same, he would have spared the national team some blushes at Twickenham just recently. The red-rose forwards would hardly have been shunted off their own ball by sundry Wallabies and All Blacks had the strongest scrummager in Europe been anchoring the operation.
Heyneke Meyer, the South African who coaches Leicester, told it how it was immediately after a contest his side might easily have lost, but for White's iron command of the set-piece. "Do you remember Doc Craven?" he asked, referring to the late Danie Craven, by some distance the most influential figure in the history of Springbok rugby. "He always said that when he selected a team, he picked his tighthead prop first. Where I come from, the scrum has always been the most important aspect of the game. It's the place where a player cannot hide, where a crucial psychological advantage can be won.
"It doesn't matter what laws are in force: a good tighthead is worth his weight in gold, and there aren't many around. I can't speak for England, but if Julian keeps going until he's 40, I'll be happy."
Like the unfortunate Burger, the coach was born in the rugby badlands of the high veld. The similarity ends there. While Meyer correctly judged that this game would be physical in the extreme and would therefore require the presence of his toughest street-fighting pack – even after the final whistle, players were squaring up to each other as the REM number "Shiny Happy People" serenaded supporters out of the ground – the visiting fall guy was left to rue a performance in which he sent out more wrong signals than a faulty satellite. When the Catalans hold their inquest today, he should plead guilty to presenting Toby Flood with the first of Leicester's tries and request that a dozen other crimes and misdemeanours be taken into account.
Quite what Daniel Carter made of it was anyone's guess. Signed on a six-month deal reputed to be worth £30,000 a match, the All Blacks' stellar outside-half watched from the stand as White set about the Perpignan front row with a cold-eyed ferocity that would have put the fear of God into New Zealand at Twickenham seven days previously, while Burger flapped and fumbled around in his own 22 to repeated cries of "get 'em off". Carter will play in the return match this coming weekend, assuming he makes it through training. If he has any sense, he will dress down.
It should be some game, for if White and Burger had not been on the field on Saturday, there would have been precious little to choose between the sides. Leicester were 13 points ahead by the end of the first quarter, but with the centre Maxime Mermoz and the No 8 Damien Chouly catching the eye – both men played in the fine French Under-21 team that won the Junior World Cup in 2006 – the visitors put themselves on terms, Mermoz running in a jaw-dropping score from 80 metres. Had the home side not notched a second try through Aaron Mauger in first-half stoppage time, Perpignan would have turned round full of confidence.
Even when Flood restored the 13-point advantage with a couple of penalties, the Romanian flanker Ovidiu Tonita dragged them back with a strong one-handed finish in the left corner. It was not until White poured on the heat at a series of scrums deep in the Perpignan 22 that Leicester pulled away, Jordan Crane completing a pushover try to the right of the posts. When the Tigers' other prop, Marcos Ayerza, put Matt Smith in the clear down the right with the cleverest of passes, the bonus point was nailed down along with the victory.
At which juncture, White was substituted. Perpignan were so delighted to see the back of him, they marched Leicester's reshaped pack upfield and inflicted so much pressure that Nigel Owens awarded a penalty try for repeated acts of defensive desperation. As Meyer indicated, tighthead props of real class are rare indeed.
Leicester: Tries Flood, Mauger, Crane, Smith; Conversions Flood 3; Penalties Flood 4. Perpignan: Tries Mermoz, Tonita, penalty; Conversions Mele 3; Penalties Mele 2.
Leicester: G Murphy; M Smith (J Murphy, 75), D Hipkiss, A Mauger (S Rabeni, 80), S Hamilton; T Flood, J Dupuy (B Youngs, 80); M Ayerza, B Kayser (G Chuter, 59), J White (D Cole, 73), M Corry (capt, M Wentzel, 46), B Kay, T Croft, L Moody, J Crane (B Deacon, 77).
Perpignan: P Burger; A Plante, C Manas (F Sid, 71), M Mermoz, J Candelon; D Mele, N Durand (Sid, h-t-42); S Chobet (K Pulu, 44), G Guirado (C Geli, 80), N Mas (capt), R Alvarez-Kairelis (O Olibeau, 65), N Hines, O Tonita (G Britz, 65), JP Perez, D Chouly.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content