Murphy tunes in Tigers

Zurich Premiership: Northampton interference fails to unsettle fitful Leicester's winning frequency
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The Independent Online

Leicester set a record by winning their 26th successive match at Welford Road, eclipsing a sequence previously held by Bath. However, as home runs go, this was not in the Babe Ruth class. The Midlands meeting between the Premiership champions and the European Cup holders looked more like a stale end-of-season affair than an autumn classic.

Leicester set a record by winning their 26th successive match at Welford Road, eclipsing a sequence previously held by Bath. However, as home runs go, this was not in the Babe Ruth class. The Midlands meeting between the Premiership champions and the European Cup holders looked more like a stale end-of-season affair than an autumn classic.

The Tigers have only been beaten here once in the last three seasons, against Newcastle in December 1997, and yesterday there was little danger of Northampton reaching the drawbridge, let alone scaling the fortress. Having marched in last season, the Saints appeared to be singing from a different hymn sheet. They were lethargic, disjointed and blunt, and even their captain, Pat Lam, looked ordinary.

Leicester, after opening up a 20-3 lead in 25 minutes, appeared to be in the mood to run riot, but as the mistakes mounted they too lost their way.

It is possible that having achieved such an advantage early on, the Tigers lost their appetite or at least their concentration, and with six minutes left, the score was 23-19, which was more an indictment of Leicester than any great awakening from their opponents.

The scoreline looked more realistic by the end, when Leicester added 10 points, including a trademark try from Austin Healey. It cost North-ampton a point.

As a welcome diversion to the action, or inaction, the match marked the introduction of Ref Link, by which spectators were given a running commentary by the referee. His remarks were transmitted via a radio mike to hand-held transistor radios. Steve Lander, the guinea pig, clearly enjoyed the experiment. "Relax," he told Paul Grayson at one point. "Don't try to influence what's happening. I'll tell you." When Martin Johnson, the Leicester captain, queried a Lander decision for the umpteenth time, the referee responded: "I don't play in the second row and don't tell me how to referee, Jonno. I can work it out."

Unfortunately it was also possible to pick up Lander spitting or clearing a nostril, in between receiving Indian music from a local tandoori. Not everybody is in favour of the innovation. "I have mixed feelings," Dean Richards, the Leicester coach, said. "It could put extra pressure on the referee."

Richards was still reacting to the criticism of his team by Newcastle last weekend, when Rob Andrew accused the Tigers of being ultra-professional in killing the ball, adding that referees were afraid to penalise them. When Tim Stimpson withdrew before the kick-off, having failed to recover from an eye injury inflicted by a punch from a Newcastle player, Richards remarked: "That came from the squeaky-clean team."

Having won their first two matches, both away, by two and three points, Leicester, before a crowd of 14,000, were quickly into their stride. Geordan Murphy, a useful replacement for Stimpson, landed a penalty in the fourth minute and another in the 12th. In between Grayson kicked a penalty for offside, prompting Johnson to ask the ref: "Is that a new rule?"

Leicester's first try after 19 minutes was created by Pat Howard, the Australian dumbfounding the Saints' defence with a dummy, and the centre enabled Leon Lloyd to score near the post. It came when the Saints were down to 14 men after Ben Cohen's halo slipped and he was sent to the sin-bin for killing the ball. Richards would have enjoyed that.

Six minutes later Alastair Newmarch made a promising run on the left and linked with Murphy, who nearly made it to the corner. When the ball was recycled, Healey chipped to the right flank, where Olivier Brouzet was in splendid isolation. The French lock got a hand to the ball but it ricocheted into the grasp of the unmarked Martin Corry, who helped himself to a simple try. Murphy's fourth successful kick out of four gave Leicester a 17-point lead.

When Newmarch received a yellow card for committing the same offence as Cohen, North-ampton failed to exploit his 10-minute absence, but they managed a try on the stroke of half-time when Steve Thompson got over from a rolling maul.

Cohen was fortunate to stay on when he committed a late tackle on Murphy but Lander, thanks to Ref Link, admitted that he could not identify the culprit. Grayson, innocuous in a back line desperately missing Matt Dawson, landed three penalties in the second half and even when Murphy responded to make it 26-19 in the 76th minute, Northampton, by virtue of not losing by more than seven points, were looking forward to a point. That disappeared as they were forced to touch the ball down behind their own line and from the scrum Healey scampered over in typically flamboyant style.

Leicester: G Murphy; A Newmarch, L Lloyd, P Howard, W Stanley; A Healey, J Grindal; D Jelley (G Rowntree, 59), D West (R Cockerill, 74), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt; A Balding, 76) , B Kay (P Short, 72), P Gustard, M Corry, N Back.

Northampton: J Bramhall; C Moir, A Bateman (L Martin, 65), M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, D Malone; M Stewart, S Thompson, M Scelzo (K Todd, 59), O Brouzet (G Seely, 65), J Phillips, T Rodber (R Hunter, 40), P Lam (capt), B Pountney.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

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