Leicester 12 Bath 15: Tigers tamed by the thin blue line

Ashton's men hold out under siege as Leicester rue decision to cash in on home advantage
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The Independent Online

Seldom in the history of professional rugby have so few defended so heroically for a cause that their so-called supporters thought long lost. In a titanic struggle that served as a metaphor for English rugby, Leicester sailed straight into an iceberg called Bath and sank without trace. At this rate the Tigers will be an endangered species.

How Leicester will get over this goodness only knows but in their 125-year history they have never suffered a more embarrassing defeat. Bath were down to 14 men for the last 12 minutes and to 13 for the last 10 having lost both props, David Flatman and Taufaao Filise, to the sin bin for scrummaging offences as Leicester went for the kill. The upshot was uncontested scrums and as far as the crowd of 32,500 was concerned it was no contest. How could Leicester lose? Suffice to say that with a minute to go and with the thin blue line stretched to breaking point, Andy Goode found himself in fly-half heaven.

He had time, space and a massive three-man overlap on the right but instead of passing for what would have been the match-winning try he held on to it and was cut down short of the line. Everybody in the Walkers Stadium was yelling and pointing at Goode to put Bath out of their misery. When he wakes up this morning he might think somebody had played an April Fool's joke.

Leicester had scored 19 tries in reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup but nobody could get over the line yesterday. Goode, the England stand-off, kicked four penalties out of six and was trumped by his opposite number Chris Malone with five out of seven. If the sweat factor was 100 per cent, the skill level was almost off the radar.

"Maybe the players know each other too well," Brian Ashton, the Bath coach said. Familiarity may breed respect but it still doesn't go anywhere near explaining one of the mysteries of the rugby universe. In the semi-finals Bath are away to the winners of today's match between Biarritz and Sale. They can only hope that their supporters will follow them.

Apart from the stunning nature of the result here, there were several factors that also defied belief. Leicester, twice winners of Europe's blue riband, played last season's semi-final against Toulouse here, the home of Leicester City, and lost 27-19. They could have played this crucial tie at Welford Road, which is more like a bear pit than an advertisement for crisps, but went for more money in the short term. It was a gamble and it failed. In the long term this disastrous result has cost Leicester heaps.

"Yes, I would have preferred to have played at Welford Road as long as all our season-ticket holders could have got in," said the Tigers coach Pat Howard. "This was a very ordinary day at the office. We had opportunities to score all over the place and didn't take any of them. There were not a lot of positives. Our composure was poor. Is it decision making, or skill based or down to bad coaching? We'll have a review." Maybe like the one they had after throwing away the semi-final of the Powergen Cup to Wasps on 4 March.

The Tigers made another mistake. In a game crying out for a finisher, they left out Tom Varndell, who was playing sevens for England in Hong Kong. The wing only happens to be Leicester's leading try-scorer in Europe.

As for Bath, they have never displayed such guts on an alien field in front of so few of their own. The club returned 6,000 tickets, which meant that of the capacity crowd only 2,200 had travelled from the West Country, and they couldn't be seen behind a forest of Leicester flags.

"There must have been a reason for it," Ashton said, "but I've no idea what it is." The teams met in the Premiership last week at the Rec and the Tigers, who dominated up front, won 19-12. Perhaps the Bath fans thought they were on a hiding to nothing. To be fair, most people did, especially after Bath lost two of their best forwards, the prop Matt Stevens and captain Steve Borthwick, before kick-off.

Perhaps Leicester were too complacent. This time they never got on top in the forward battle and their internationals showed signs of wear and tear. Was Lewis Moody playing? Was Martin Corry captaining with a clear head? Negative. Leicester won a stream of penalties towards the end and had they chosen to kick any one of them the match would have probably gone to extra time. Instead they battered away at the thin blue line and inexplicably failed to break it.

"You won't see much more heroic stuff than that," Ashton said. "I thought Leicester had to score." So did the whole of Leicestershire.

Leicester: S Vesty; L Lloyd (A Tuilagi 62), O Smith, D Hipkiss, G Murphy; A Goode, H Ellis (A Healey, 58); G Rowntree, G Shuter (J Buckland, 40), J White, L Deacon, B Kay, L Moody, M Corry (capt), S Jennings (L Abraham, 66).

Bath: M Stephenson; A Higgins, A Crockett (T Cheeseman, 67), O Barkley, D Bory; C Malone, N Walshe; T Filise, L Mears, D Bell (D Flatman, 45), J Hudson (P Short, 37), D Grewcock, A Beattie, I Feaunati (capt), G Delve (M Lipman, 62).

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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