Johnson's Tigers bring champions down to earth

Leicester 35 - Wasps 27
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The Independent Online

One hundred and thirty points spread over 180-odd minutes of majestic sporting theatre, each one of them paid for in blood, sweat and every other form of human currency. It cannot continue like this, surely. When Martin Johnson and his brethren left the field last night, it was on hands and knees - and they were the victorious ones. Their opponents, European champions still but all too aware of the dying of the light, could barely move a muscle, lost as they were in a fog of exhausted mortification.

"Out on their feet, the lot of them," said John Wells, the Leicester coach, who had spent consecutive Sabbaths wondering how his side could play so brilliantly against a side of Wasps' quality without once threatening to break them in spirit. A week previously, the Midlanders had scored three tries in the opening quarter, only to find themselves scrapping for their lives in the closing seconds. Here, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu threatened to separate the former flanker from his sanity.

Leicester managed only one try in the first 20 minutes on this occasion, but they were every bit as ruthless in terms of early scoreboard activity. They put so much distance between themselves and their great rivals - 19-0 at one point, 29-13 at the interval - that there was no logical reason why Wasps should have bothered with the second half. But bother they did, to stunning effect. When they cut the deficit to a mere eight points with a reasonable chunk of time remaining on the clock, there was a distinct possibility of one of rugby's fundamental laws - that no sucker ever gets an even break at Welford Road - being exposed as mere myth.

"We couldn't get rid of them," Wells admitted, his face a picture of bemusement. "They just wouldn't go away." Yet for all their cussedness, the Londoners could not maintain their surging momentum in the least forgiving minutes of a merciless contest. The Leicester forwards, who had put the Wasps scrum through the mincer at High Wycombe and did something similar to the holders' line-out yesterday, dredged up one last flicker of energy in the closing moments to re-establish a degree of territorial control. Not a single point was registered in the final 11 minutes - quite a statistic, given the generosity of the scoring over the two matches.

Wells' decision to recall Ben Kay, a World Cup-winning lock fallen on hard times, to his starting combination paid more dividends than a blue-chip company in a bull market. The big lock repeatedly ransacked the visitors' line-out, creating such unholy mayhem that his loose forwards were able to play merry hell with Matt Dawson and Alex King, those beating hearts of the Wasps attacking game. King did manage to work the dangerous Stuart Abbott into space on the odd occasion, but it was a case of too little, too rarely.

But then, Johnny O'Connor caused Leicester a similar degree of strife at the breakdown, repeatedly clamping his thieving hands around the ball and denying Johnson and company due reward for their proficiency at the set-piece. Neil Back, no one's idea of an innocent in the burglary department, had to strain every sinew just to stay within 10 metres of him. If Back was a key figure on the last two Lions' tours, O'Connor will be a headline act in New Zealand next summer.

Not that he made any more sense of Leicester's remarkable dash from the blocks than his befuddled colleagues. Harry Ellis, so full of swagger at scrum-half that he repeatedly made long detours to give Dawson mockingly sympathetic pats on the head, beat both Josh Lewsey and Ayoola Erinle in a 45m gallop to the line, and with Andy Goode kicking penalties from every point of the compass the Tigers were in point-a-minute mode. Tom Voyce, as predatory as ever, cut the arrears after Abbott charged down a rushed clearance from Daryl Gibson, but two home tries at the fag-end of the half stopped the revival in its tracks.

To make matters worse for the visitors, the 10 points might easily have gone the other way. Wasps were attacking hard when Lawrence Dallaglio was penalised on the floor, and could scarcely believe their misfortune when Goode tapped a penalty to himself and freed Austin Healey down the right - a raid that culminated in a touch-down for George Chuter. When the dangerous Abbott was brought to earth a few metres short of the Leicester line 90 seconds later, the ball somehow found its way to Geordan Murphy. Ellis zipped up in support, dummied to create space for Leon Lloyd and then located him with a precise scoring pass.

Sixteen points adrift, Wasps summoned the furies after the break. Joe Worsley bounced over at the posts; Will Green materialised on the left to finish a move in which Rob Hoadley handled on three occasions. But try as they might, they could not get themselves on terms. Their future in this tournament is now in the hands of others, and the sound of choking can already be heard.

Leicester: Tries Ellis, Chuter, Lloyd; Conversion Goode; Penalties Goode 6. Wasps: Tries Voyce, Worsley, Green; Conversions Van Gisbergen 3; Penalties Van Gisbergen 2.

Leicester: G Murphy; A Healey, O Smith, D Gibson, L Lloyd; A Goode, H Ellis (S Bemand, 74); G Rowntree (D Morris, 26-36), G Chuter, J White, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, L Moody, M Corry, N Back.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, A Erinle (R Hoadley, 61), S Abbott, T Voyce; A King (J Brooks, 73), M Dawson (H Biljon, 65); C Dowd, B Gotting, W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt), J O'Connor.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).