Leicester rise to Johnson's occasion

Leicester 49 Ulster 7
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The Independent Online

In more than 300 appearances for his beloved Tigers, including 40 in the Heineken Cup which for two years they called their own, he had scored precisely 15 tries.

The one that Martin Johnson collected here with a 25-metre gallop in the dying minutes could not match the dizziest heights he reached during his international career, which ended officially with a post-match announcement in Leicester's ABC Bar, but it heralded the news in tumultuous fashion.

Welford Road went potty. The man himself almost laughed. Not only were Tigers back on track in Europe - they have now to visit Gwent before hosting Stade Français - but their favourite son had marked a momentous day in style. Some would claim that club takes precedence over country; others that it is absolutely the other way round. With Johnson leading a rude reversal of the previous week's 33-0 humiliation at Ulster's red hand, Leicester were able to have their cake and eat it.

In fact, they gobbled it up. Johnson has been gracing the green jersey - and very occasionally disgracing it - since his debut in February 1989. There can hardly have been level of noise here in the intervening 15 years to match the one that accompanied this dramatic turnaround in form. It began with the quiet irony of the last two tracks played before the teams emerged: "Living On A Prayer" and "If I Could Turn Back Time".

And turn it back Leicester did, in a windswept and always interesting match of frenetic activity and quite breathtaking commitment from the home side. How, on Planet Johnno, had we even considered that Tigers might lose? "I do not think that we quite appreciate the enormity of what Martin has done," said Leicester's chief executive, Peter Wheeler, himself a former England captain. That day may be long in coming.

In the brutal here and now, Johnson got into a dust-up with Simon Best before 15 minutes were on the clock. The fans roared their approval. More pertinently, Graham Rowntree tore into Best at the scrums, and the Tigers' toothlessness in the backs of late seemed like a distant dream. Long before the end, the tunes cascading from the Crumbie Terrace were "Easy, Easy", reprising the taunts at Ravenhill six days earlier, and "Deano, Deano", in support of Dean Richards, Leicester's beleaguered director of rugby.

Richards tried his ump-teenth combination at half-back - Harry Ellis and Jaco van der Westhuyzen - and, goodness, how it came off. In the 51st minute, Van der Westhuyzen scampered past Roger Wilson and Adam Larkin to register the bonus-point try and take Leicester from the bottom to the top of Pool One.

Ellis, returning from a six-week suspension, ensured that Leicester's tidy delivery from set-piece, and Henry Tuilagi's violent charges from No 8, were not wasted. Meanwhile Sam Vesty, wearing Van der Westhuyzen's No 15 jersey, whacked over penalty goals in the fifth and ninth minutes as if the capricious wind was a light summer zephyr. Poor Paddy Wallace suffered by comparison, but that was much the case throughout the visitors' side.

Ulster were rattled from the off. Andy Ward, was sent to the sin-bin for coming in at the side of a ruck after 11 minutes. Though Vesty missed the resulting penalty, Leicester were firmly, if none too prettily, on top. A couple of the ugliest passes in midfield you might see somehow led to their first try, as Leon Lloyd scooped up a loose ball and scampered in from 25 metres.

Vesty converted for 13-0 after 25 minutes, and after two more confidently struck penalties, Lloyd's second try sent Leicester in with a 23-0 lead. Any notion of Ulster using the elements to mount a fightback were denied with brutal rapidity. Vesty landed his fourth penalty three minutes into the second half, then Johnson linked with Ricky Nebbett, on as a blood replacement for Rowntree, to feed Neil Back for the third try. Next the younger Johnson, Will, got in on the act, taking a clean line-out to pave the way for Van der Westhuyzen's score. Vesty converted on both occasions.

Ulster responded with a try for James Topping, converted by David Humphreys. But Johnson's try in the 79th minute, from Ellis's pass after Leicester had turned Ulster over, ratcheted up the racket. Vesty's sixth penalty was the final word, in scoring terms.

The tributes to Johnson will not cease anything like as quickly. "Martin's level-headedness is second to none," said Richards afterwards. But he was smiling, too.

Leicester 49 Ulster 7
Tries: Lloyd 2, Back, Van der Westhuyzen, Johnson; Try: Topping
Cons: Vesty 3; Con: Humphreys
Pens: Vesty 6

Half-time: 24-0 Attendance: 16,815

Leicester: S Vesty; A Healey (S Booth, 57), L Lloyd, G Gelderbloom, N Baxter; J van der Westhuyzen, H Ellis; G Rowntree (R Nebbett, 43-50), D West (J Richards, 66), D Morris (Nebbett, 66), M Johnson, B Kay, W Johnson, H Tuilagi (W Skinner, 61), N Back (capt).

Ulster: P Wallace; J Topping, S Stewart (A Larkin, 18), P Steinmetz, T Howe; D Humphreys, N Doak; R Kempson, M Sexton (P Shields, 66), S Best (R Moore, 50), M Mustchin (M McCullough, 54), R Frost, A Ward (capt), R Wilson, N Best (W Brosnihan, 54).

Referee: N Williams (Wales).

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