Leicester's iron will prevails

Bath squander first-half lead as Tigers advance inexorably towards third consecutive title
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The Independent Online

Done and dusted, topped and tailed, over and out. Leicester are Scrooge-like in their parsimony, more streetwise than an entire army of Artful Dodgers and, most importantly of all, 11 points clear in the Premiership. They might as well be 21 points clear, for there is not the remotest likelihood of their messing things up between now and the middle of April. A hat-trick of titles is pretty much in the bag as a result of yesterday's iron-willed triumph at the Recreation Ground and, judging by their celebrations at the final whistle, the Midlanders know it.

Done and dusted, topped and tailed, over and out. Leicester are Scrooge-like in their parsimony, more streetwise than an entire army of Artful Dodgers and, most importantly of all, 11 points clear in the Premiership. They might as well be 21 points clear, for there is not the remotest likelihood of their messing things up between now and the middle of April. A hat-trick of titles is pretty much in the bag as a result of yesterday's iron-willed triumph at the Recreation Ground and, judging by their celebrations at the final whistle, the Midlanders know it.

Bath could, perhaps should, have given the domestic championship a lift by doing the business on a raw afternoon by the river; they were 16-3 up towards the end of the first half and, even after Leicester had huffed and puffed their way to a one-point advantage in the final quarter, the West Countrymen fluffed two penalties and three drop-goal attempts during a nerve-shredding climax, any one of which would have kept this season's show on the road. But as their coach, Jon Callard, admitted, they were found wanting in the key areas of composure and discipline.

"I'm not begrudging Leicester what they have: my God, we could have used just 10 per cent of it out there," Callard muttered through gritted teeth.

"We're chasing a lost cause now, I think; they're so solid at home, and five of their remaining games are at Welford Road. I'd be very surprised if anyone makes a contest of the Premiership from this position." That's that, then. We can all take the next three and a half months off, and pop back in time for the end-of-season play-offs.

Callard was less resigned on the subject of refereeing, however; he was positively spoiling for a fight with officialdom after watching Chris White, one of England's more senior custodians of the silver whistle, sanction a typically crafty Leicester forward effort. "We all know what they do, and we know they're good at it," he said, referring to the Tigers' tried and tested spoiling "antics" at the breakdown.

"All we want to do at Bath is play with a smile on our faces and express ourselves, but until these people" - the referees, as opposed to the champions-elect - "get a grip on things and stop allowing themselves to be intimidated, it won't happen."

Fair enough, to a degree, but there was more to Leicester's victory than some high-class brinksmanship at ruck and maul. If Martin Johnson was indeed playing his last game for the foreseeable future - he goes before the beak at Twickenham tomorrow, accused of applying a hairy knee to some poor Saracen's ribcage - he can rest up in the knowledge that his peerless work at the front of the line-out helped his side to their most satisfying victory of the campaign. Bath possessed natural ball-winners in Steve Borthwick and Dan Lyle, but they did not know what to do for the best in the face of Johnson's brooding hostility.

Leicester's kicking game was also a notch up on anything the home side could offer, although their tactical punting fell to pieces as the clock ticked down. Thanks to the cannon concealed in Tim Stimpson's right boot, the visitors always looked capable of scoring points from long range. Suitably inspired, young Andy Goode also tried his luck from distance and rewarded his club-mates for some faultless ball retention with a winning drop goal from 45 metres. It had taken the Midlanders 69 minutes to hit the lead and, having managed it, they were in no mood to relinquish their advantage.

Had Bath reproduced the inventiveness of their first-half rugby, they might have turned things around. Iain Balshaw's magisterial finish on 18 minutes was no more than Lyle and Gareth Cooper deserved for their excellence in the build-up, and there would have been further scores but for the failure of Mike Tindall and Gavin Thomas to maximise two glaring overlaps. Those lapses proved expensive. Leicester rarely turn up their noses at free gifts, and duly capitalised on a couple of schoolboy errors in the opening minute of the second half to present Neil Back with his customary corner-flag try.

From that point on, the Premiership had the look of an ex-tournament.

Bath: Try Balshaw; Conversion Perry; Penalties Perry 3. Leicester: Try Back; Penalties Stimpson 3; Drop goal Goode.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, M Tindall (S Berne, 46), K Maggs, R Thirlby (T Voyce, 78); M Catt, G Cooper (J Preston, 78); S Emms (D Barnes, 61), M Regan, J Mallett, M Haag, S Borthwick, B Clarke (capt) (N Thomas, 70), G Thomas, D Lyle.

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, O Smith (G Gelderbloom, 25), P Howard, L Lloyd; A Goode, A Healey; G Rowntree, D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, P Gustard (M Corry, 61), N Back, W Johnson.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).

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