Generally speaking, it takes something very special – or, perhaps, deeply controversial – to leave a man called Homer playing second fiddle in an epic. A Madejski Stadium crowd of 20,000-plus witnessed both during the course of yesterday's captivating Premiership encounter: the first in the form of a brilliant scrummaging display from a pack of Leicester forwards with the scent of blood in their nostrils; the second in the shape of Ben Youngs, the England scrum-half. Or more precisely, Ben Youngs' right knee.
At the start of a week in which two members of the red-rose squad, the Northampton players Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark, are being hauled before the beak to answer charges of violent excess, it will be surprising indeed if their international colleague does not join them in the dock. Youngs clearly dropped his knee on to the prone body of the London Irish back-rower Jamie Gibson in the closing seconds of the first half – an act that prompted his opposite number, Darren Allinson, to seek immediate retribution, thereby instigating a mass dust-up – and while Gibson might not have been entirely blameless, he was unquestionably more sinned against than sinner.
Asked for his take on this latest flash of temper from Youngs, the London Irish coach Toby Booth went for the euphemistic approach. "What did I think? I thought it was unnecessary," he said. "Was Jamie wrong to hold him back? Probably. But when that happens to someone who can't defend himself, it's a bit different. Still, the right people will have a look at it. What will be, will be." As for the Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill, there was more than a whiff of resignation about his reaction. "Ben is trying to play, he gets held down, he leverages himself off," he said by way of an attempted explanation before giving it up as a bad job. "It's not ideal," he admitted, eventually. "Whether it's citable is not for me to say, but if we were to lose him at this stage of the season, it wouldn't be good."
This was a fiercely contested match, teetering on the fractious, which explains why the two goalkickers, Tom Homer and Toby Flood, had plenty of opportunities to hone their marksmanship skills. Yet while Flood, operating behind a dominant set-piece, kicked with impressive accuracy, he was overshadowed – in this department at least – by his opponent. Three times between the 70th and 75th minutes, with the outcome very much in the balance, Homer was asked to land 50m shots from left field. Three times, he bisected the sticks with such precision that the phrase "middle of the middle", coined by the long-time England kicking coach Dave Alred, sprang to mind.
"He's a special kid and that was a special performance," acknowledged Brian Smith, newly reinstalled at the top end of the Exiles' rugby operation after a three-year tour of duty with England. Smith played alongside some half-decent points-gatherers during his time in international rugby with Australia and Ireland – the great Wallaby midfield strategist Michael Lynagh, for one – and has worked with a few more top-of-the-bill acts during his coaching career, including some bloke by the name of Wilkinson. Yet there was a moment yesterday when it was difficult to believe he had ever seen anything better.
Homer also contributed a second-half try after wrong-footing the aforementioned Youngs, among others, in open field a dozen or so minutes after the interval, but for all the full-back's heroics, he would finish on the losing side. Leicester, slow to react to the pace and tempo of the contest in the opening quarter but ahead through close-range scores from Flood and Julian Salvi well before the half-hour mark, had more than their share of dodgy moments, but with the likes of Marcos Ayerza, Dan Cole and, latterly, Martin Castrogiovanni squeezing the Exiles' pips in the darkened recesses, they established complete command in the area that really mattered.
Cole, especially, appears to have added considerable amounts to his game over the course of the Six Nations – a fact probably attributable to his regular appearances in the England starting XV, having spent too much time on the Leicester bench. Certainly, he asked some difficult questions of his international front-row colleague, the London Irish loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero, as yesterday's game unfolded. There was also much to be said of Ayerza's performance on the opposite side of the scrum. Quite why the current Argentine coaches think less of him than the Tigers' back-room team is a mystery that passeth all understanding. The marginalised Puma was magnificent here.
Not that the beaten Smith was unduly disappointed at seeing the visitors rise to third in the Premiership table at the expense of his own side, who cannot find a way out of the bottom four. Having suffered the worst trauma of his sporting career in the aftermath of the failed World Cup campaign – once again, he referred to the "grubby" leaking of three post-tournament reviews to the media – he seemed happy enough to be back in the game he considered quitting for good.
He even dressed for the occasion, in a smart two-piece. "The RFU spends a lot of money on a lot of things, including clothes," he remarked, "and while they didn't spend that much saying goodbye to me, unfortunately, they left me this suit. And I intend to wear it until the bloody thing's threadbare."
Scorers: London Irish - Tries: Evans, Homer. Conversions: Homer 2. Penalties: Homer 5. Drop goal: Bowden. Leicester - Tries: Flood, Salvi, Tuilagi, Croft. Conversions: Flood 3. Penalties: Flood 5.
London Irish: T Homer; M Yarde (D Armitage, 67), J Ansbro, S Shingler, S Tagicakibau; D Bowden, D Allinson (P Hodgson, 67); A Corbisiero (M Lahiff 47), D Paice (J Buckland, 50), F Rautenbach (P Ion, 31), N Kennedy (capt), B Evans (R Casey, 67), D Danaher, M Garvey (O Treviranus, 59) J Gibson (A Gray, 67).
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Tuilagi, W Twelvetrees, S Hamilton; T Flood, B Youngs (J Grindal, 60); M Ayerza (L Mulipola, 66), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 56), G Skivington, G Parling, S Mafi (T Croft,53), J Salvi, T Waldrom.
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).