Last-gasp Healey upstages the newcomer

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Freddie Tuilagi made a bid for instant folk hero status, it must be said on little other than a couple of pin-ball runs and a willingness to play up to the Leicester crowd. But it was a favourite son of longer standing than the new recruit from St Helens, Austin Healey, whose sparkling contribution ensured that the Tigers reversed last week's defeat in Wales.

Freddie Tuilagi made a bid for instant folk hero status, it must be said on little other than a couple of pin-ball runs and a willingness to play up to the Leicester crowd. But it was a favourite son of longer standing than the new recruit from St Helens, Austin Healey, whose sparkling contribution ensured that the Tigers reversed last week's defeat in Wales.

Healey's opportunistic try and masterly drop goal in the second half helped Leicester to better Pontypridd's margin of victory in the first meeting by a point, which will count if the sides should finish level on results at the end of the Heineken Cup pool stage. The mathematics apart, however, this was a rousing battle that Leicester deserved to win but which confirmed Pontypridd's reputation as Wales's doughtiest European competitors.

A sprinkling of dreadlocked wigs around Welford Road heralded Tuilagi's debut on the left wing, two weeks after he shared in St Helens' Super League Grand Final victory. The fortnight spent reacquainting himself with the union code after five years away looked too short at first when he was caught in rucks like a rabbit startled by car headlights. Pontypridd cleverly kicked high and long to unsettle the former Samoa World Cup player and the rest of the Leicester backs. And when they had the ball in hand, Pontypridd sensibly kept things simple.

That policy earned them a try in each half by the promising second row Robert Sidoli and flanker Richard Parks, but with Leicester ruling the line-out and having enough possession - just - to survive a catalogue of dropped passes, the home side were always ahead after a 14th minute penalty try, converted by Tim Stimpson.

There were signs of rare nerves from Leicester when they chose to kick for goal from their own 10-metre line - Stimpson firing wide - and when scrum-half Jamie Hamilton planted an unnecessary set of studs on to Sidoli's leg at a ruck in the closing minutes of the first half.

It needed Healey simultaneously to settle his side's jitters and quicken the pulses of the 14,000 crowd. Jarvis telegraphed a drop-goal attempt from a line-out on the Leicester 22. Healey charged him down, muscled his way to the ricochet and chased fully 60 metres in a winning pursuit of his own hack to the corner flag.

Stimpson's third and fourth penalties, either side of the try by Parks, in which another Ponty youngster, the No8 Michael Owen, was prominent, had Leicester 24-13 up. But Pontypridd, aside from a notable capitulation away to Stade Français a couple of years back, have been Wales's bravest travellers, while never threatening to reach a European Cup final.

Jarvis smacked over two long-range penalties to reduce Leicester's advantage to a single try, but on such margins success and failure rest. Healey was not about to see Leicester's fine home record dented and certainly not by opposition from the Valleys. A mighty charge off the back of a scrum by the always impressive Martin Corry gave Healey the chance to fall back into the pocket and he did not let Leicester down with the decisive drop goal. Chants of "Freddie, Freddie" were all very well, but Healey was the real star.

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, L Lloyd, P Howard, F Tuilagi; A Healey, J Hamilton; G Rowntree (D Jelley, 64), R Cockerill (D West, 64), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, P Gusard, M Corry, N Back (L Moody, h-t).

Pontypridd: B Davey; L Woodard, S Parker, J Bryant (J Lewis, 49), J Colderley; L Jarvis (C Williams, 75), P John (capt); C Loader, J Evans, P Graham (N Tau, 49), B Cockbain, R Sidoli (W James, 64), D McIntosh, R Parks, M Owen.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland)

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