Leicester's insatiable appetite for success

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The Independent Online

Believe it or not, there are those who predict that a fourth consecutive Premiership triumph – a done deal, despite Dean Richards' curmudgeonly views on the matter – will finally satisfy Leicester's appetite for success, and that their standards will slip accordingly. The latest evidence suggests there is more chance of Martin Johnson joining the Hari Krishna movement and wandering the East Midlands preaching pacifism. The Tigers remain positively Bunterish in their cravings, and look capable of raiding everyone else's hamper for a good while yet.

It is just possible that Leicester are rugby's version of Monty Python's Mr Creosote, in which case they will erupt in a lava of green-shirted gunge the moment this season's title is safely under lock and key – a moment that could arrive as early as 9 April, if results conspire in their favour. But the more realistic scenario is another 12 months of one-way traffic as the top-of-the-bill brigade, the Johnsons and Healeys and Backs, sharpen their blades for the 2003 World Cup. And after that? More of the same, as likely as not.

The 16,500 spectators sardined into Welford Road for Saturday's one-plays-two affair were denied a decent look at the cream of the champions' new generation, for both Louis Deacon and Oliver Smith were history by the eighth minute. The two youngsters were hurt in the same attack, as the Midlanders covered the width of the field in an attempt to break down Gloucester's barn-door defence, and there is no guarantee that either will make the England A date with Wales in Bristol on Friday night.

However, the paying customers were treated to a full 80 minutes' worth from Lewis Moody, who looks more like an England flanker than the England flanker he spends his life playing alongside. Moody would be the last person on earth to suggest he might be performing better than Neil Back Esq, or even acknowledge publicly that he is worthy of mention in the same sentence, but his performance against the West Countrymen at the weekend was so full of energy, commitment and sporting joie de vivre that his senior partner could barely keep pace.

Clive Woodward, the England manager, will probably stick with the Back-Hill-Worsley unit for this weekend's Six Nations game with Wales: indeed, he has already confirmed that Back will captain the side in the absence of the suspended Johnson. With the brick-hard Martin Corry back in the Test frame, Lawrence Dallaglio working his way towards match fitness and two highly effective young breakways, Gloucester's James Forrester and Declan Danaher of London Irish, tripping the light fantastic, the back-row congestion at red rose level is now of M25 proportions.

But Moody must surely feature in Woodward's thoughts, especially in light of Worsley's trials and tribulations in Paris 16 days ago. At 23, he could afford to bide his time a while longer; to wait for Back, his master, to run himself into the ground or disappear one last time beneath a thousand enemy studs at a ruck on some far-flung field of battle. If this has occurred to him, it was not evident against Gloucester. Moody bore the stamp of a flanker at the very summit of his game, psychologically as much as physically – a player who wants it all, and wants it now. It is time for him to start, and finish, a major England international.

According to Graham Rowntree, the Leicester prop, Gloucester had the Midlanders in a cold sweat as the fixture drew near. "We feared this one more than any other, in terms of protecting our unbeaten home record," said the loose head, who has appeared in the vast majority of the 49 Premiership victories rattled up by the Tigers at Welford Road since Newcastle had the brass neck to shut them out in late December 1997. "We knew it would be trench warfare; that they would stack up physically, go for us at scrum and line-out, deny us the quick ball we need. We're relieved to get it behind us."

A sign of weakness? No, quite the opposite. If, after all they have achieved, Leicester can still use the fear factor to their advantage, there is no reason why they should not continue to dominate their inferiors in the chasing pack. "Let's face it, a team needs to produce one hell of a performance, just to come close to winning here," said Nigel Melville, the new director of rugby at Gloucester. "Everything, but everything, is against you: the crowd is always a factor, and the officials are sometimes influenced by the prevailing atmosphere. And then there is the Leicester attitude, which is so hard and runs so deep."

Even though the visitors competed fiercely throughout and shaded the opening half-hour, when the brilliant Olivier Azam operated at maximum pitch and the Fidler-Cornwell-Forrester combination hurt Leicester at the line-out, Melville was unhappy with his side. "There was nowhere near enough composure, we didn't look after our possession, we didn't take it through enough phases and we played too deep," he moaned. "Was I satisfied? Of course not. We aspire to beat teams like Leicester, but the gap is still there."

That gap measured 17 clear points by the break, which was enough to leave the West Countrymen on anti-depressants for the rest of the campaign. They might easily have matched Back's close-range finish and Austin Healey's confident scamper to the line – Diego Albanese was within a gnat's crotchet of a try following some defensive nonsense from Healey and Tim Stimpson, while a clean break from the ever-combative Andy Gomarsall cried out for better support – but "might" is nowhere near enough in this environment. Even though Ludovic Mercier grabbed a chip-and-chase score in the left corner, Leicester insisted on the final say through Dorian West.

"Before you ask me whether the title race is over, I still can't hear the fat lady singing," said Richards, the Tigers team manager, dispensing his usual brand of post-match chloroform. That, Dean, is because the fat lady nodded off while waiting for someone to strike a meaningful blow against the status quo. If the second-placed team cannot manage it, who can?

Leicester: Tries Back, Healey, West; Conversions Stimpson 3; Penalties Stimpson 2. Gloucester: Try Mercier; Conversion Mercier; Penalty Mercier.

Leicester: T Stimpson; S Booth, O Smith (G Gelderbloom, 8), R Kafer, F Tuilagi; A Healey, H Ellis (J Hamilton, 55); G Rowntree (P Freshwater, 61), D West (R Cockerill, 74), D Garforth, L Deacon (W Johnson, 7, A Balding, 77), B Kay, L Moody, N Back (capt), M Corry.

Gloucester: D O'Leary; D Albanese, H Paul, R Todd, T Fanolua (C Catling, 67); L Mercier, A Gomarsall (D Yachvili, 77); P Collazo (T Woodman, 41), O Azam (C Fortey, 74), A Deacon (F Pucciarello, 61), R Fidler, M Cornwell, J Boer (capt), J Forrester (K Sewabu, h-t), J Paramore.

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).

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