The English clubs may be turning their backs on the most compelling annual tournament in the union game but at least they are showing the good grace to wait until the end of the season. The French appear to be engaged in a mass skedaddle with two thirds of the campaign still to run. Racing Métro, Perpignan, Toulouse... between them, three of the biggest teams in the country have just made a mockery of the idea that they are still remotely interested in European competition.
There were times at Welford Road on Sunday when it seemed Montpellier, an enigma wrapped up in a mystery if ever there was one, could not have cared less if they ever played another Heineken Cup match. It took them all of 14 minutes to ship 24 points and while Leicester did some nice things in building a winning lead straight from the kick-off, the visitors gave them no end of assistance. Fluffed line-outs, open-field fumbles, daft passes out of contact, powder-puff tackles – they could hardly have been more helpful.
A team boasting players as dynamic as Timoci Nagusa, Rene Ranger, François Trinh-Duc, Jonathan Pélissié, Mamuka Gorgodze and Johnnie Beattie might have been expected to play some half-decent stuff before running up the white flag. Instead, they surrendered first and played second. By the end of an encounter that was almost as entertaining as it was bewildering, they had come within a single forward pass of dealing Leicester a mortal blow.
“Had that pass been ruled good, it would certainly have been game on,” confessed Richard Cockerill, the Tigers’ rugby director, referring to Pélissié’s off-load to Nagusa nine minutes from time. Had that attack, launched by Beattie down the short side of a scrum, been rewarded with the seven points it deserved, Montpellier would have been just three shy of their hosts with the momentum surging behind them. As it was, the Frenchmen were denied by the video footage.
To make matters more painful still, Pierre Berard was immediately penalised for failing to release on the floor and could only look on miserably as Toby Flood put the game to bed with a clean penalty strike from 40-odd metres. Berard owed his team and went some of the way to settling up on 78 minutes when he fastened on to Gorgodze’s pass and crossed for a fourth, bonus-point try. But a second bonus went west when Ryan Lamb, badly at fault for Berard’s strike, dropped a goal at the death.
“It won’t be the same knockabout game next week,” predicated Cockerill, who takes the English champions to Montpellier for the return next Sunday. “I don’t think they felt it was that important to win here. They’ll shrug their shoulders, welcome us into their own back yard and throw everything at us. We needed that victory but there’s still a long way to go in this group.”
So there is, but it is the devil’s own job to know just how seriously the French are taking this Heineken Cup business. Some of Montpellier’s early rugby yesterday was on the pathetic side of lamentable and while Vereniki Goneva’s line for the opening Leicester try was slide-rule perfect, and while Miles Benjamin looked a million dollars in bagging the two that followed, it was legitimate to wonder what the hell was going on in the visiting camp.
Not that the Tigers were seeing it from a French perspective. They were far more interested in looking at things from Benjamin’s point of view. The left wing’s tries – the first a side-stepping solo effort past four Montpellier shadow-clutchers, the second a diving finish in the corner after another intervention from Goneva – were heaven-sent gifts for a man who had spent four and a half months in a neck brace and waited 15 months for a first-team debut after switching to Welford Road from Worcester.
By the time the 25-year-old from Solihull had finished tearing Montpellier to shreds, it was impossible to imagine how a match might break out. Yet Nagusa, that force of Fijian nature, had his own ideas. Pilfering the ball from under the Tigers’ noses when Scott Hamilton lost control deep in the visitors’ 22, he somehow worked it to Beattie while lying flat on his back and then watched in delight as the gifted Scottish No 8 delayed his own pass until Gorgodze had a clear run to the line.
That brought Montpellier to within 11 points, and they were closer still when Nagusa scored himself a minute shy of the interval. A couple of penalties from the admirably committed Flood, together with a close-range score from the flanker Jamie Gibson off a driving Leicester scrum, kept the home side in a good place, but when the man from the South Seas burst clear once again to open up the field for the first of Berard’s tries, it dawned on Leicester that there was work still to be done.
This realisation did not come a moment too soon, and with the in-form lock Graham Kitchener very much to the fore, they just about survived the remaining 14 minutes. Whether they survive the forthcoming trip to the Languedoc may be another matter entirely, but then will Montpellier play the whole game, or just a part of it?
Scorers: Leicester: Tries Benjamin 2, Goneva, Gibson; Conversions Flood 3; Penalties Flood 4; Drop goal Lamb. Montpellier: Tries Berard 2, Gorgodze, Nagusa; Conversions Pelissie 2, Trinh-Duc; Penalties Pelissie 2.
Leicester: S Hamilton; A Thompstone, V Goneva, D Bowden, M Benjamin; T Flood (capt, R Lamb 73), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs (N Briggs 63), D Cole (F Balmain 73), L Deacon (E Slater 60), G Kitchener, J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom 53).
Montpellier: A Floch (P Berard 65); T Nagusa, R Ranger, T Combezou (W Olivier 61), Y Audrin; F Trinh-Duc (capt), J Pelissie (E Escande 73); N Leleimalefaga (M Nariashvili 54), C Geli (T Bianchin 53), M Bustos (P Fa’anunu 53), J Hamilton, M Demarco (T Privat 56), K Galletier (A Tulou 65), M Gorgodze, J Beattie.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).