Leicester quick to crush Leinster's token resistance

Leinster 13 Leicester 29
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The Independent Online

Already denied the services of their principal line-out organiser - despite the best efforts of the Welford Road physiotherapy department, Ben Kay was not fit enough to sit down on the replacements' bench, let alone stand up to be counted on the pitch - Leicester found themselves deprived of the single most important cog in their scrum, Julian White, shortly before they took the field. Trouble? Not a bit of it. The Midlanders could have lost the rest of their pug-ugly pack to a contagious outbreak of "caulifloweritis" and still made the last four of the Heineken Cup, such were the limp inadequacies of their impotent hosts.

Struggling with a neck problem that has plagued him since the early minutes of the opening Six Nations Championship game against Wales and now casts a shadow over his participation on this summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, White at least made it on to the field to congratulate his colleagues at the end of a disappointingly one-sided quarter-final.

This was more than could be said for the Leinster forwards, who were nowhere to be seen at any point during the proceedings and were still in hiding long after the excellent referee, Joel Jutge, had blown for no side. But for some solitary heroics from Eric Miller, who learned his trade at Leicester during this tournament's formative years, there would have been no sign of life at all.

To stand an earthly chance of prevailing over a mean and motivated Martin Johnson - not to mention the great captain's successor in the role of Prince of Darkness, the utterly ruthless Martin Corry, and the freak of nature known as Lewis Moody, who appears to defy all laws of physics as well as physiology - it is best to turn up as an eight. Or preferably, an 80. Packs as accomplished as the Tigers' current unit tend not to be surrounded by one man operating alone, even if that man understands more than most about the way Leicester operate. Miller strained every sinew and burst every last corpuscle in an effort to stem the tide, but to no avail. He looked like King Canute in shorts.

Leinster may have fielded three-fifths of Ireland's tight-forward combination from the Six Nations, but as far as the Lions are concerned, none of them are worth a light. Not even Malcolm O'Kelly, who looked every inch a Test candidate at the start of the year. Leicester, on the other hand, should contribute handsomely to the assault on All Black country. Graham Rowntree is certain to travel, as are Moody and Corry. Kay and White should also be on the plane, assuming they get themselves fit enough to hobble through the departure gate. There is also growing support for Neil Back, a veritable geriatric in professional rugby terms, but one with the heart and soul of an impassioned teenager. Depending on how the Lions selectors choose to deploy Moody, the dear old stick may yet receive a plane ticket through the post.

There were two distinct aspects to Leicester's startling domination of Saturday evening's tie, which drew 48,500 spectators to Lansdowne Road, thereby setting a new mark for a Heineken Cup quarter-final. The first was the inexorable single-mindedness of their approach, which was rooted in the failures of the previous two seasons - the poor Premiership performances, the flawed European campaigns, the painful parting of the ways with Dean Richards - and in the knowledge that for both Johnson and John Wells, the departing head coach, this is a last hurrah. The second was their superior physical conditioning.

Individually and collectively, Leicester were fitter and faster, stronger and harder - the result of playing more high-level competitive rugby than their opponents, rather than less. The notion, enthusiastically embraced by the Celtic nations, that it is possible to win a European title in the gym and on the training ground was exposed in all its stupidity. The teams performing at the optimum right now - Leicester, Toulouse, Stade Français - are the teams with the heaviest fixture lists. English clubs have a 22-match Premiership and a knock-out cup; the French have a 30-game league. Point made.

From the moment Moody seized the ball from the kick-off - a sprint, a leap and a clean catch, all in what appeared to be a single movement - Leicester were in their element. The tight forwards fairly marmalised their opposite numbers in all phases, the back-rowers were yards quicker and miles more efficient than their rivals, Harry Ellis and Andy Goode made the most of the armchair rides provided by the pack, Daryl Gibson and Ollie Smith easily neutralised the midfield threats posed by Brian O'Driscoll, Felipe Contepomi and, in the final quarter, Gordon D'Arcy. Smith's try towards the end of the first half, realised in some style after Louis Deacon's line-out steal had set the move in motion, was a long time in the coming, but inevitable all the same.

Leicester made more errors in three minutes at the start of the second period than they had during the whole of the previous 40. Deacon fumbled the Leinster drop-out, the ensuing line-out went awry, Back missed a first-up tackle on David Holwell, the scrummagers went to sleep at the set-piece for the first and only time, Gibson sliced a clearance off the outside of his boot. As a result of this pandemonium, Holwell dragged his side back to 6-16 with a second penalty. But once Moody beat Shane Horgan to the ball at the restart and fed Gibson for another try, the visitors were over the hills and far away.

"Last week, after our defeat at Leeds, I wanted to retire," Johnson said. "This week, I want to play forever. I won't, of course. I'm not Alan Shearer and I won't be changing my mind about retiring. Christ, the pre-season is only three months away, and I can't face that. For the rest of this season, though, I'm up for winning whatever I can. Toulouse in the semi-final? Fantastic. I don't mind where we play it: the Walkers Stadium, my back garden... anywhere will do. It should be some game, don't you think?"

As ever, Johnson was right. And Toulouse will have to deliver quite some performance to deny old beetle-brows one last Heineken Cup final appearance on his way out of the sport.

Leinster: Try Horgan; Conversion Holwell; Penalties Holwell 2. Leicester: Tries Smith, Gibson; Conversions Goode 2; Penalties Goode 4; Drop goal Goode.

Leinster: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, F Contepomi (G D'Arcy, 53), D Hickie; D Holwell, G Easterby; R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne, R Nebbett, M O'Kelly, L Cullen, C Potts (V Costello, 49), K Gleeson (S Jennings, 59), E Miller.

Leicester: S Vesty (A Healey, 77); G Murphy, O Smith, D Gibson, L Lloyd; A Goode, H Ellis (S Bemand, 35-40); G Rowntree, G Chuter, D Morris, M Johnson (capt), L Deacon, L Moody, N Back, M Corry.

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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