Leicester refuse to be turned inside out

London Irish 15 Leicester 30
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The Independent Online

There are those in the higher echelons of the Rugby Football Union who accuse London Irish of bringing very little of value to the domestic game. Some embittered souls have yet to forgive the Exiles for their role in sending London Scottish and Richmond through the trap door a couple of years back; others merely point to the fact that most of the club's English-qualified players are about as English as a stick of biltong. Ryan Strudwick? Geoff Appleford? South Africans by any other name.

Irish brought even less to the party yesterday than their critics habitually claim, for their failure to rustle up a spare strip in an emergency forced the Tigers, European champions and quite the grandest club in the northern hemisphere, to play the whole of this eagerly-awaited fixture with their shirts turned inside out. Instead of numbers, players' names and sponsors logos being laid before the 11,000 supporters at the Madejski Stadium, the only decoration in evidence was a tawdry collection of cotton seams.

In fairness to the Exiles, the onus was on Leicester to change kit once Chris White, the Test-panel referee, decided that a colour clash was inevitable. However, no one said anything to anyone on the strip issue until the sides had arrived at the ground. "There was damn-all we could do about it," said Dean Richards, the Leicester team manager. "Anyway, our change strip would have clashed even more badly than our usual colours." And the Irish? "We would willingly have used our away strip, but there were only 11 shirts available," revealed their director of rugby, Conor O'Shea. To think we can put a man on the moon...

Had Kieron Dawson, the Exiles' international open-side flanker, not tried to ruck a certain Martin Johnson into the middle of the next solar system with five minutes left on the clock, the home side might have succeeded in turning the form book inside out, as well as the Leicester shirts. The visitors were a point up at 16-15 when a large proportion of the East Midlands fell on the wrong side of an attacking Irish ruck and lay so still that they might easily have been certified dead. Dawson, all angst and frustration, gave Johnson the full six studs-worth and ended up in the sin-bin. "It was a big, big call from the referee," said Brendan Venter, the home player-coach. "The open-side plays such a crucial role."

Venter stopped short of claiming that Leicester scored two injury-time tries as a direct result of Dawson's absence, which was probably wise in light of the flanker's fragile defensive performance throughout the preceding 75 minutes. But the former Springbok was less than overjoyed at the decision, all the same. "Leicester do not move away from the tackle, and they do slow down opposition ball," he said, following faithfully in the footsteps of a dozen other coaches who have raised suspicions about the title-holders' antics at the breakdown. "They don't mind giving away penalties, either. It's disappointing, because the final scoreline makes it look like a rout."

Few games this season have been less like a rout than yesterday's. Leicester's renowned heavy mob had their work cut out at the set-piece until the Exiles diluted their own scrummaging strength by replacing Neal Hatley and Rob Hardwick with Michael Worsley and Simon Halford six minutes after the interval. In addition, the Midlanders were frequently turned over on the drive as Strudwick, Richard Kirke and Eddie Halvey put themselves about with considerable vigour. Leicester were not themselves outside, either. There was a curate's egg contribution from Austin Healey at outside-half – great running, shocking passing, so-so kicking – and a rather ponderous performance from Leon Lloyd, still feeling his way back after long-term injury.

But the Irish still went down three-zip on the try count, and their lack of firepower was blatantly obvious. They started brightly enough, Venter surging into the Leicester 22 as early as the sixth minute to earn Barry Everitt the first of his five penalties, but seldom mounted a serious assault on the opposition line. The Tigers, meanwhile, threatened constantly by playing the long diagonals and running Tim Stimpson into the soft underbelly of the Exiles' wide defence. This tactic produced the platform for Jamie Hamilton's opening try towards the end of the first quarter and might easily have been more productive still.

Indeed, Leicester should have been well sorted by the hour mark, but complete territorial domination in the 20 minutes after the break yielded precisely no points. It was with some relief, then, that they saw the back of Dawson and used their one-man advantage to maximum effect during stoppage time. Healey, now operating on the right wing, fielded a fairly gormless kick from Michael Horak, feined a drop at goal and ran wide down the right touch to manufacture a straightforward finish for the excellent Lewis Moody. Three minutes later, Lloyd topped and tailed it by sauntering over to the left of the posts on the overlap.

"There's still a long way to go," insisted Richards, registering his umpteenth successive victory in rugby's "cliché of the week" competition. Don't you believe it. Seven points clear at the top of the pile, his side are already within touching distance of their umpteenth successive victory in the Premiership.

London Irish: Penalties Everitt 5. Leicester: Tries Hamilton, Moody, Lloyd; Conversions Stimpson 3; Penalties Stimpson 3.

London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, B Venter, J Bishop (E Thrower, 37); B Everitt, D Edwards (H Martens, 64); N Hatley (M Worsley, 46), R Kirke (N Drotske, 49), R Hardwick (S Halford, 46), R Strudwick (capt), S Williams (G Delaney, 64), E Halvey, K Dawson, C Sheasby.

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy (A Goode, 72), L Lloyd, R Kafer, S Booth; A Healey, J Hamilton (H Ellis, 56); G Rowntree, D West, R Nebbett, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, L Moody, N Back, A Balding (W Johnson, 76).

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).