Harlequins 21 Leicester 38

Two tries from Healey the great enigma take the champions into untouchable territory
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The Independent Online

The Premiership turkey is all but cooked. Barring something very strange indeed, all that remains is for a little seasonal stuffing, not dissimilar to the one dished out in the second half to Harlequins yesterday. A fourth successive league title is ready to be served to Leicester on a silver platter.

Sale, the last team to visit The Stoop, ran on to the pitch to the sound of the music from Coronation Street. What should they have played for Leicester? "We are the Champions", perhaps. This may sound a little premature considering the Premiership does not finish until May but who can live with the Tigers?

They not only have great strength but great strength in depth, certainly deeper than any other club in the country and yesterday they collected five points, including a bonus point, to increase their lead at the top of the table to 14 points. Sale, who are in second place and who yesterday had their match called off, travel to Welford Road on Thursday.

Quins, who knocked Leicester out of the semi-finals of the cup here last season, looked capable of a repeat performance for all of 45 minutes. In front of a packed house, Quins responded to the challenge and gave Leicester a hurry-up by competing incessantly and tackling in almost tigerish fashion.

At the end of a cracking first half that had just about everything, Quins held a 14-10 lead and the Stoop was waiting with bated breath. Most observers were left breathless when Leicester scored 21 points in the space of 17 minutes with three converted tries, two of them to Austin Healey and one to Martin Johnson, who also went on to score a second, his side's fifth which earned the bonus point.

As John Kingston, the Quins coach, pointed out, three of those tries resulted from defenders being beaten one-on-one. However, Kingston added: "This is the best club side I've ever come across by a mile. There is so much more to their game. You can't even compare them to the Leicester of two or three years ago. They have so much more width and continually ask questions. I think our defence is good but we conceded five tries. Leicester are a terrific advertisement for the Premiership.''

Maybe, but where does that leave the rest? Pass the sage and onion.

Leicester got off to a flyer. Quins kicked off, regained possession, got the back line moving and Will Greenwood's awful pass was hacked on by Geordan Murphy. Seventy yards later the wing won the race for the touch-down at the posts.

Seven-nil down after roughly as many seconds, Quins got stuck in. Charging down a kick from Jamie Hamilton, Paul Burke hared up the left touchline for a solo try and proceeded to add three penalties.

The champions found themselves 14-7 down and what's more had lost their full back and specialist goal kicker, Tim Stimpson, who took a fearful crack on a cheekbone in a collision with Freddie Tuilagi after only six minutes.

"We were obviously concerned at half-time," Dean Richards, the Tigers coach, said, looking extremely unconcerned, "but we set our stall out for the second half."

And what high quality merchandise they displayed. Five minutes after the interval Healey slipped inside Chris Bell to round off a relentless series of attacks. It was a crucial score and now Leicester were in full cry. Nine minutes later Tuilagi made a break down the right flank and the ball was recycled left where Steve Booth, Murphy with an overhead pass and then Neil Back combined to send Johnson storming over in the left-hand corner.

With Andy Goode coming on at stand-off, Healey was switched to the right wing, with immediate effect. And finding himself opposite Dan Luger, Healey, in one of his more impudent moods, stood off the England wing and for a couple of mesmeric seconds it looked like a contest between a cobra and a mongoose. Having transfixed Luger, Healey then darted outside him for an extraordinary try. The score-line of 14-10 now read 14-31.

There was a little respite for Quins when Graham Rowntree was shown the yellow card and in his absence Scott Bemand was driven over at the posts. Rowntree did not deserve to be sent to the sin-bin and Bemand's try was also extremely dodgy but Quins had to take what they could.

With four minutes remaining captain Johnson took an inside pass in midfield and then swerved round Ryan O'Neill, the last line of defence, for a mickey-taking try which, of course, Murphy converted. O'Neill felt as embarrassed as Luger had done when he was beaten by Healey.

On 19 January Quins have to go through it all again when the clubs meet here in the quarter-finals of the Powergen Cup, the national knock-out competition. They can hardly wait.

Harlequins: R O'Neill; M Moore, W Greenwood, C Bell, D Luger; P Burke, M Powell (S Bemand, 60); B Starr (J Dawson, 76), T Fuga (J Roddam, 71), J Leonard, G Morgan (capt), A Codling (B Davison, 57), R Winters (A Alesbrook, 76), T Diprose, T Tamarua.

Leicester: T Stimpson (S Booth, 6); G Murphy, O Smith, R Kafer, F Tuilagi (A Goode, 56); A Healey, J Hamilton (H Ellis, 79); G Rowntree, D West, R Nebbett, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, W Johnson (L Moody, 77), M Corry, N Back.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).