The beautiful game is all well and good, but there is one fairly significant drawback: if beauty wins hearts and minds, ugliness wins matches. Who laid hands on the World Cup in Paris? Not the All Blacks, two of whose chastened number Aaron Mauger and Byron Kelleher were on show here, or the Fijians, represented at Welford Road by Seru Rabeni and Maleli Kunavore. It was won by the warts-and-all South Africans, who were hard-pressed by an English team playing rugby so profoundly horrid that the witches from Macbeth refused to watch it on the grounds it was too hideous on the eye.
Toulouse do beauty better, and more often, than anyone. For five minutes at the start of Saturday's wet-weather game, when the two Yannicks, Jauzion and Nyanga, were slicing up the Leicester defence for fun and Clment Poitrenaud looked like the world-beater he would be if he ever concentrated for more than a few seconds at a stretch, anything and everything seemed possible. Well, anything bar a home victory. The Midlanders were not on the same planet, let alone the same pitch. "It was," confessed Jordan Crane, their young No 8 and man of the match, "a little scary, given the conditions."
Leicester had one hope, and one only: to turn the game into a dogfight and hope the Frenchmen would not notice. It worked, if only just. Toulouse might have snatched victory late in the piece, but Cedric Heymans's scoring pass to Vincent Clerc was correctly called forward by Nigel Owens, the accomplished Welsh referee. "If I weren't so polite, I'd say I was shitting myself at that moment," said Benjamin Kayser, a hooker recruited by Leicester from France last summer. Only a front-rower could come out with a line like that.
Two things were clear at the weekend. Fact number one: Leicester, behind the eight-ball in this tournament ever since their poor opening-round display against Leinster in Dublin, will fight to the death to stay involved. They played this most demanding of fixtures without Geordan Murphy and Alesana Tuilagi and Lewis Moody, not to mention other long-term stretcher-cases like Harry Ellis. Yet their reservists the Home Guard, as it were played their hearts out. Crane was terrific, even if he lacks a yard of pace and an entire passing game. Luke Abraham, his fellow loose forward, was even more effective.
Fact number two: Toulouse will, if they rein things in just a little, make the final of this tournament and probably win it for a fourth time. It is inconceivable that their line-out, boasting as it does the likes of Patricio Albacete and Thierry Dusautoir as well as the sublimely athletic Nyanga, will continue to implode as it did here, and it also takes some believing that a side containing the majestic Jauzion will draw a second blank on the try-scoring front. This was their first defeat of the season, and even then it was sweetened with a bonus point. Few who watched them at the weekend expect them to lose many more.
So how did it come to pass, this life-giving Leicester victory? To begin with, Toulouse committed the wrong mistakes at the wrong times in the wrong parts of the pitch. Most of these errors were the direct result of their own extravagance only a truly brilliant team could make such unmitigated howlers, for their work is generally beyond the imagining of rugby's hoi polloi. Take Poitrenaud. After playing some exhibition stuff in the opening exchanges, he promptly made an exhibition of himself by attempting too much in too deep a position and presenting Ollie Smith, one of the more likeable characters in the sport, with a try in the left corner. You would think the man might have learned the lesson, having cost his club the 2004 title with an infamous piece of nonchalance, but then, do we really want so gifted a full-back to cramp his own style?
Yet Leicester were equally to blame, so to speak, for the way events unfolded. They hurt Toulouse at the set-piece the rise and rise of Marcos Ayerza, a revelation last season, is continuing apace and with the honest infantryman Abraham making Nyanga and Dusautoir, two top-of-the-ground cavalry types, suffer by dragging them into some trench warfare, the Tigers eked out an advantage, albeit a slim one. They also had the thunderbooted Andy Goode among their number. There are better outside-halves in the world, and when Juan Martin Hernandez makes his anticipated move from Stade Franais, there will be a better one at Welford Road. But when it comes to banging the ball downfield and forcing opponents to play a long way from the Leicester line, Goode rarely messes up.
With Crane driving powerfully around the fringes if, as he seemed to suggest afterwards, his scavenging work in the loose is known as "jackaling", he could not have chosen a more appropriate word and the ever-reliable Dan Hipkiss burying all and sundry with his tackling, Leicester generated enough claustrophobia to leave the Frenchmen struggling for air. It was Hipkiss who clattered Poitrenaud ahead of Smith's try, and as that intervention in the 12th minute ended up separating the sides, his deserved reputation for making the decisive plays is now further entrenched in the minds of the England hierarchy.
In six days' time, the Midlanders travel to the Midi-Pyrennes for the return leg. Will they win again? Probably not, especially if it stops raining. But while few rugby men would prefer playing the Leicester way to the Toulouse way, there is still something to be said for old-fashioned guts. When the union game loses that, it loses everything.
Leicester: Try Smith. Penalties Goode 3. Toulouse: Penalties Courrent 2. Drop goal Courrent.
Leicester: S Vesty; T Varndell, D Hipkiss, A Mauger (S Rabeni, 60), O Smith; A Goode, F Murphy (B Youngs, h-t); M Ayerza (White, 85), B Kayser (G Chuter, 69), J White (M Castrogiovanni, 52), L Deacon (J Hamilton, 40), M Wentzel, M Corry (capt), L Abraham, J Crane.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, F Fritz (M Kunavore, 60), Y Jauzion (capt), C Heymans; V Courrent (J-B Elissalde, 81), B Kelleher; D Human (O Hasan, 70), W Servat (V Lacombe, 75), J-B Poux (Human, 83), F Pelous (R Millo-Chlusky, 55), P Albacete (G Lamboley, 83), Y Nyanga (J Bouilhou, 58), T Dusautoir, S Sowerby.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content