Leicester 41 Newcastle 14: Tigers tear up Tait claim to England full-back role

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Seen through the prism of the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, there was more to this ruthless Leicester victory than an attempted decapitation of Jonathan Peter Wilkinson Esq, although certain celebrity-obsessed tragics left Welford Road under the grand delusion that this was all that had happened. For the record, the patron saint of the red rose survived the assault with some ease. He did not even blink, let alone meet his maker. Mathew Tait, meanwhile – well, that was a different story.

Tait played at full-back, which was where everyone from the England head coach, Brian Ashton, down wanted him to play. And he made a complete you-know-what of it, to the extent that John Fletcher, the Newcastle director of rugby and one of his most passionate supporters, sympathetically summoned him from the field midway through the final quarter.

If it was not quite a Mark van Gisbergen moment – remember the Wasps full-back fumbling his way out of the Test team on a grisly night at Sale during the reign of Ashton's predecessor, Andy Robinson? – it was quite uncomfortable enough, thanks for asking. If Ashton picks Tait at No 15 for this Saturday's meeting with Wales, he will fly directly in the face of the most recent available evidence.

England's best player during the World Cup final against South Africa last October – he started that match in his favoured outside-centre role before dropping back to cover for the stricken Jason Robinson – Tait showed nothing of his breathtaking running game here. What he did show, unfortunately for him, was a limitless capacity for misjudgement under the high ball; a frailty that led directly to other crimes and misdemeanours, such as slicing clearance kicks off the outside of his right boot and passing the ball directly to a chap minding his own business on the terraces.

James Hook and Gavin Henson, two Welshmen handsomely equipped to send kicks spiralling into the nimbostratus, will have taken note.

"Let's not judge Mathew on the basis of a couple of fluffed restart catches," said Fletcher. "He's an outstanding outside back, wherever he's picked." But why, oh why, did he run so far to challenge for balls he could so easily have left to some other mug? Why did he not box clever and cut his losses? "He's not that sort. I've never seen Mathew shirk anything. And besides, it's not every day a full-back has Lewis Moody after him."

It would certainly have been easier for Tait had he not been forced to contend with Moody, the flanker who puts the "gung" in gung-ho, and it is true to say that if selected, the youngster will at least have him on his side at Twickenham on Saturday. The question is whether the Leicester forward has undermined Tait's confidence to the extent that Ashton feels he cannot trust the latter to piece his inner self back together in time for an important international that could shape the entire Six Nations tournament. This much is certain, though: by performing as he did in front of the England forwards coach, John Wells, the energetic Moody made doubly sure of a place in the starting line-up.

No one in world rugby chases a ball harder or more enthusiastically, and if there are some who dismiss him as a small piece of an open-side flanker, unnaturally developed, and would prefer to see him in the blind-side position, the likes of Wells beg to differ.

So too does Marcelo Loffreda, the Argentina coach who joined Leicester after the World Cup and went a considerable way towards ending the debate about his suitability for the job by plotting this most comprehensive of victories.

"Lewis is the best No 7 in England, I think," Loffreda remarked. "It is not easy for a player to be injured for two weeks, have little preparation time, and still produce a performance like that. He would be an important figure in any team. There is dirty work to be done on a rugby field – by 'dirty', I mean things that have to be accomplished when you are not in possession of the ball – and in that area, he is outstanding."

Wells left his old stamping ground with more positive messages for Ashton. The Leicester locks, Louis Deacon and Ben Kay, made a horrible mess of the Newcastle lineout, although they were helped by Fletcher's peculiar decision not to start with the elastic Geoff Parling; while Jamie Noon, who tackled his way into the World Cup squad last summer, was equally effective here despite being on the painful end of a hiding; and Toby Flood, his fellow centre, created so much out of nothing with his little subtleties and sophistications that the game never lost its interest, even though the traffic was of the one-way variety.

There was even a hearty dust-up to warm the cockles, stemming directly from Andy Goode's high hit on Wilkinson just past the hour. Suddenly, there were a dozen players slugging away, including the two wings, Johne Murphy and Tom May.

This pair had fallen out a few minutes previously, and while it initially looked as though the powerfully-built May might claim a comfortable points decision, the arrival of Martin Castrogiovanni changed things dramatically. The massive Italian prop made May look like an anorexic stick insect, and a single shove in the chest sent the Newcastle man flying in the general direction of South Wigston. Very funny indeed.

Leicester: Tries Corry, Crane, J Murphy, Ayerza; Conversions Goode 3; Penalties Goode 4; Drop goal Goode. Newcastle: Try Flood; Penalties Wilkinson 3.

Leicester: G Murphy (I Humphreys, 69); T Varndell, S Rabeni, A Mauger (O Smith, 46), J Murphy; A Goode, F Murphy; M Ayerza, G Chuter (B Kayser, 76), M Castrogiovanni (D Young, 73), L Deacon, B Kay (M Wentzel, 78), M Corry (capt), L Moody, J Crane.

Newcastle: M Tait (O Phillips 68); T May, J Noon (capt), T Flood, J Rudd (T Visser, 68); J Wilkinson, J Grindal; J Golding (M Ward, 62), A Long (M Thompson, 46), C Hayman, A Perry, M Sorenson, B Wilson (G Parling, 46), B Woods, R Winter (P Dowson 27).

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).

Comments