Johnson scuffle sours Leicester's fireworks night

Saracens 7 Leicester 48
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The Independent Online

Would Martin Johnson fancy a gentle run-out before the forthcoming humdinger against Ireland? No way. The England captain was at full throttle, and only just short of throttling the occasional Saracen, as Leicester spectacularly jettisoned the millstone of losing their last three Premiership matches on this ground.

England were denied the chance to check on the form of either Austin Healey, who had a mixed time of it on the right wing at Murrayfield last week, or Kyran Bracken, the Saracens scrum-half who failed a fitness test on the dead leg which forced him off at half-time in Edinburgh.

Healey, munching through a pre-match pastry among a knot of Tigers supporters, would say only that he was "having a rest". Bracken expects to be fit for Twickenham next weekend, but with Northampton's Matt Dawson still on the injured list, the new cap from Harlequins, Nick Duncombe, must be gazing ever more expectantly across the road to HQ.

A certainty to face Ireland is Richard Hill, who roared into his 200th appearance for Saracens by clattering into Geordan Murphy to pave the way for a ruck penalty which Jannie de Beer was unable to convert. Hill then had a shoving match with Johnson, to prove that Premiership points were paramount.

But in other areas, notably the line-out, Saracens were sadly slipshod compared with high standards of the table-toppers. Three times in the first half, Robbie Russell's throws were pinched by Leicester, negating the threat of Saracens' highly experienced jumpers, Scott Murray and Abdel Benazzi. The home side's coach, Francois Pienaar, made an urgent trip to the touchline to bark out instructions to Murray.

Meanwhile, without hitting top gear, the Tigers built a 17-0 lead. After Andy Goode kicked a fifth-minute penalty, there was a trademark catch-and-drive try for Neil Back from Johnson's line-out take, and Goode converted for 10-0. De Beer had two more chances to punish Leicester's killing of the ball in rucks, but missed both, including one that struck a post from only 30 metres out.

That gave Leicester the impetus to land a heavy blow in first-half injury time. Martin Corry was on the end of good handling and, though held up just short, kept the ball alive for Goode to wriggle through some ineffectual tackling, followed by an assured conversion from the touchline.

There was nothing metaphorical about the blow from Johnson that prompted a mass wading-in on all sides 13 minutes into the second half. The England captain was jostling with Russell, and having failed to shake off the Scottish international with a jerk of the elbow, appeared to catch his smaller opponent with a right uppercut. Referee Dave Pearson sent both men to the sin-bin.

Johnson and Saracens are a combustible mix – the mighty second row was banned for five weeks last season for foul play on the London club's then outside-half, Duncan McRae. Leicester carried on regardless last night, picking off a try either side of the sin-binning, by Ollie Smith and Murphy, and one during it, when Rod Kafer skated through from Goode's inside pass.

Goode's failure to convert Murphy's score was the outside-half's first miss of the evening. It mattered not one jot. With a record-equalling win over Saracens in the bag, Leicester – with and without their tempestuous totem Johnson – sealed a 17-point lead at the top of the Premiership when Freddie Tuilagi dotted down a sixth try 11 minutes from time. A magnificent seventh by Steve Booth followed what was no morew than a token from Nick Walshe. Pienaar and Saracens will not be able tp push on for Europe while they have a relegation monkey on their backs.

Saracens: A Winnan; T Shanklin, K Sorrell, T Horan, D O'Mahony; J de Beer, N Walshe; D Flatman, R Russell, P Durant, A Benazzi (capt), S Murray, K Chesney, R Hill, T Roques

Leicester: G Murphy; S Booth, O Smith, R Kafer, F Tuilagi; A Goode, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, J Kronfeld, M Corry, N Back.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland)

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