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Leicester lean on Howard to keep title

Martin Johnson's boys would not win many beauty competitions, but they are a whole lot prettier than Bristol. When the hard-bitten uglies in the Leicester pack found themselves comprehensively out-snarled by a seriously gruesome West Country eight at the Memorial Ground yesterday afternoon, they simply changed their stripes and played their rugby on the side of the angels. They scored three tries, each of them a thing of grace and delicacy, and retained their Premiership title more comfortably than the final scoreline suggested.

At the centre of it all was... well, a centre, fittingly enough. Pat Howard, the former Wallaby midfielder, had not missed a senior match all season, and was in no mood to see his unstinting commitment go to waste with the big prize there for the taking. He had either a hand or foot in everything: his perfectly-weighted grubber kick created the opening score for Geordan Murphy, an elusive scamper through the heavy traffic was largely responsible for Lewis Moody's try just shy of the interval and a disguised pass of sublime quality allowed Leon Lloyd to wrap it up 15 minutes from time.

Howard will succeed Joel Stransky as Leicester's backs coach next season, and if he can pass on even a small proportion of his repertoire to the Murphys and Lloyds in his care, the Tigers' back line will give the thoroughbred unit from Bath a run for their money. Dean Richards, the victorious team manager, singled out Howard as "tremendous", while Bob Dwyer, the Bristol head honcho who once coached Howard in the Wallaby set-up, acknowledged him as a "major influence". Dwyer is hardly the sort to throw cheap hosannahs around - he would rather sell boomerangs for a living than talk up an opponent - so this was praise indeed.

Richards is not the most emotional of sporting icons, but he was fairly oozing pride in the aftermath of a contest so ridiculously physical that it made hardened rugger-buggers wince at the sight and sound of muscle on sinew. "We didn't give ourselves a chance of the title at the start of the season, what with the World Cup calls on almost a dozen players," he said.

"We had a serious problem at tight-head prop either side of Christmas, and there were injuries that hurt us at the turn of the year. But the back-room staff got people back on the pitch and we turned our season by winning one or two bruising encounters away from home. I'm really extremely delighted."

The manager revealed that he and his fellow luminaries had decided, as a matter of policy, not to "pick injured" - that is to say, select a player less than 100 per-cent fit. "If you look at Northampton, where outstanding talents like Pat Lam and Matt Dawson are struggling to get through some very big games, you have to wonder whether it's helping their cause," he said.

"Mind you, I certainly think our Premiership chances were helped by our early exits from both cup tournaments. It's not impossible for a side to win more than one trophy in this day and age, but the team that does will have to be absolutely outstanding."

In truth, Leicester were less than outstanding yesterday. They spent a sizeable chunk of the first half and almost all of the second under the cosh as Bristol, swept along by the extraordinary Andy Sheridan, tore into the fray in an effort to underpin their own European credentials for next season. Had it not been for some iron defence in midfield and the occasional piece of ball-smuggling by Neil Back, the Tigers might easily have found themselves on the wrong end of Henry Honiball's boot.

As it was, Howard produced enough fireworks in attack to ease the Midlanders' path. He reacted to Back's sin-binning at the end of the first quarter by sliding the sweetest of kicks along the right touchline, where Murphy beat Spencer Brown to the punch on his way to the line. Bristol stayed in touch with three Honiball penalties, but some hard driving from Graham Rowntree two minutes into first-half injury time allowed Howard and Back to free Moody on a joyous 20-metre gallop to the posts.

After the break, Sheridan forced the visitors on to the back foot with his NFL-style rushing game - indeed, the young lock did enough to suggest that he might spend June on the high veld of South Africa with the red rose attached to his left breast. But his colleagues did not have the faintest idea how to make things happen out wide.

Leicester's final try, beautifully manufactured by Howard and Lloyd, was worth any number of the dismal maul-over scores claimed by Barry Williams, the Bristol hooker.

Had Leicester gone pear-shaped yesterday, they would have been forced to put their title on the line against Bath at Welford Road this weekend. That game no longer matters, but it will not stop almost 18,000 adoring supporters turning up to toast another triumph.

Bristol: Tries Williams 2; Conversions Honiball 2; Penalties Honiball 3. Leicester: Tries Murphy, Moody, Lloyd; Conversions Stimpson 3; Penalties Stimpson 3.

Bristol: L Best; D Rees, E Simone (N Burrows, 55), M Back, S Brown; H Honiball (G Bowen, 81), A Pichot (G Baber, 70); P Johnstone, B Williams (J Evans, 80), P Lemoine (L Gerrard, 74), G Archer, A Sheridan, M Salter (C Short, 70), A Vander, D Ryan (capt).

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, L Lloyd (C Joiner, 77), P Howard, D Lougheed; A Healey, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, R Cockerill (P Freshwater, 74), R Nebbett, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden (B Kay, 42), L Moody (P Gustard, 78), N Back, M Corry.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).