Healey prompts Leicester to new heights

Leicester 29 Leinster 18
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The Independent Online

It is not just hippopotamuses who glory in mud. On a treacherous, boggy Welford Road pitch Leicester and Leinster defied the conditions and produced some absolutely fabulous rugby in a rip-roaring Heineken Cup quarter-final which thrilled a capacity 16,249 crowd.

In the second quarter of the match the Tigers scaled heights that had everyone shaking their heads in disbelief. It prompted the usually undemonstrative manager Dean Richards to admit: "That was some of the best rugby we have played all season."

Key to the whole thing was Austin Healey, back from his three-week ban. He wore the No 10 shirt and gave a near-perfect demonstration of outside-half play. He always seemed to be a dozen moves ahead of the opposition and he controlled the whole game in masterful fashion.

It was a fine return and well-timed with England's team for next weekend's Calcutta Cup match to be announced tomorrow. However, Healey denied that his mind was on England: "I just saw it as a chance to get back into a Leicester shirt, I was not thinking about England. I am very happy to be back, I have worn the shackles and now they are off."

They most definitely were. The long pass from Healey which produced the try of the match, if not of the season for the Tigers, and allowed Leon Lloyd to shimmy, shake and then scorch around the despairing cover, was the product of sheer brilliance.

Then Healey did a double dummy and spurted between Shane Byrne and Bob Casey for one of his own, and followed that with yet another misspass which found Rod Kafer, and the former Wallaby centre presented Geordan Murphy with a fairly straightforward run-in for the Tigers' fourth try.

It rounded off a hot spell which spilled over into the second half long enough to allow Neil Back to score his second try – again off a catch and drive line-out. And it was the England flanker who had sparked Leicester's burst of four tries in 15 minutes when he was driven over from a hallmark Tigers move – the rolling maul.

Four of their tries sprang directly or indirectly from penalty kicks to touch and five-metre line-outs, but they are masterful in their management of the drill. If the opposition are over-committed Leicester were perfectly prepared to spin the ball wide where they knew Healey would work his magic with his pacy backs.

Leinster's Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll admitted afterwards: "We just could not combat the rolling maul and their defence is very strong, and at times was impenetrable."

And yet Leinster had stolen into a 10-point lead inside 15 minutes, emphasising their remarkable record in this competition against the Heineken Cup holders. Leinster had arrived here as the last team to win at Welford Road, two long seasons ago, and overall Tigers had lost three of their five previous European Cup meetings against these opponents.

They looked to be on the way to an unwelcome fourth (which would also have completed an unhappy hat-trick of defeats in successive weeks for Leicester), although admittedly there was a sniff of controversy over Leinster's opening try, a touch judge giving benefit of the doubt to the attackers when Denis Hickie and Healey chased and dived for the ball as it rolled over the line. Both players clawed for the ball, desperate to touch it down.

Apparently TV pictures were inconclusive, no one able to establish that Hickie had managed to ground the ball, but the try was given; and there were even mutterings that the scrum-half Ben Willis had stepped momentarily into touch when he was credited with Leinster's 57th minute try after nipping around the tight side of a ruck. But even without a consistent kicker – stand-in Murphy landed just two conversions – Leicester were far and away the better side.

Leicester: Tries Back 2, Lloyd, Healey, Murphy; Conversions Murphy 2. Leinster: Tries D Hickie, Willis; Conversion Spooner; Penalties Spooner 2.

Leicester: G Murphy; O Smith, L Lloyd, R Kafer, F Tuilagi; A Healey, J Hamilton (H Ellis, 60); G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, L Moody, M Corry (A Balding, 71), N Back (J Kronfeld, 69).

Leinster: G Dempsey; D Hickie, B O'Driscoll, S Horgan (A Magro, 49), G D'Arcy (S Keogh, 70); N Spooner, B Willis; R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne (G Hickie, 80), P Wallace P Coyle, 71, L Cullen (A McCullen, 80-83), R Casey (T Brennan, 52), E Miller, V Costello, K Gleeson.

Referee: J Jutge (France).