Saracens 12 Leicester 13: Varndell on hand to win bruising battle for Tigers

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The Independent Online

A fixture with a rich history of pugilism featured only a couple of scuffles - a bantamweight contest between Kyran Bracken and Austin Healey; a brief flurry featuring the formidable Julian White, the man with the word "hit" in his own surname. There was no shortage of physicality, though. Leicester, coming good at the right end of the season, squeezed out the tightest of victories because they possessed the more dangerous of the two back divisions, but Saracens pushed them sufficiently hard to suggest they will be a significant force next season.

Tom Varndell scored the one try of the match - his 13th of the Premiership campaign, his 28th in as many senior starts and a very decent tally in anyone's language. However, Leicester might easily have had four. Alesana Tuilagi, their out-sized Samoan wing, butchered two crystal-clear chances, spilling the ball as he stretched over the line in the first half and then decking the most sympathetic of passes from Varndell late in the second. Lewis Moody also forfeited five points by being penalised for a double movement on the Saracens line.

That profligacy almost cost them dear. Saracens kept at them to the bitter end, running through a dozen phases in injury time in an attempt to put Glen Jackson in range of a drop-goal that would have earned them the spoils. Leicester's defence, brilliantly organised by Daryl Gibson in midfield, just about held firm, although Ben Johnston put the fear of God up the visitors by slipping clear at the last knockings.

Through to the championship play-offs once again, Leicester need to get themselves sorted up front. They were decisively outscrummaged for much of the contest, and their line-out was anything but secure, despite the best efforts of Martin Corry, the England captain. But they tackled and scavenged with characteristic fury - none more so than Moody, who cramped Saracens' style with an energetic effort in the loose and denied them a try by covering across field to bring Tevita Vaikona to earth just when the big Pacific islander seemed certain to open up an early 10-point lead.

As it was, Saracens were happy enough at 9-0 after half an hour. Jackson brought his high-quality kicking game to the party and punished Leicester's indiscretions on the floor with three penalties. Sadly for the home side, Varndell cut the deficit within seconds by pouncing on a cross-kick from Andy Goode that eluded Dan Scarbrough in the corner. It was the simplest of tries, but then, the young wing makes everything look easy right now.

Varndell had threatened to rip up Saracens a couple of minutes earlier when, after fumbling a deep kick from Jackson near his own line, he stepped on the after-burner to beat two would-be tacklers in a few square inches of space, released his back-line before taking a fine pass out of contact from Gibson and drew the remnants of the home defence to release the dangerous Geordan Murphy into space. It was from this electrifying move that Moody, clattered by Jackson and Vaikona, came so close to claiming a five-pointer.

There was a fractious feel to the game either side of the interval. White took umbrage when Jackson, hit marginally late by Harry Ellis, attempted to take retribution on the England scrum-half as he lay prone on the floor with a cut over his left eye. Then, a few minutes into the second half, Healey riled Bracken with a patronising pat on the head at a scrum. The latter, playing his last home game for Saracens and in no mood for nonsense of the fourth-form variety, reacted with considerable exasperation. His opponent was duly penalised, presumably under the law relating to pains in the backside. If this was a minor victory for Bracken, it was not sufficient to deflect the Tigers from their purpose.

With the likes of Murphy and Varndell among their number, they may be reasonable bets to reclaim the title they last won in 2002. So long as they get their pack up to speed.

Scorers: Saracens Penalties: Jackson 4. Leicester Try: Varndell. Conversion: Goode, Penalties: Goode 2.

Saracens: T Castaignede (R Haughton, 85); T Vaikona, B Johnston, K Sorrell, D Scarbrough; G Jackson, K Bracken (M Rauluni, 60); K Yates (N Lloyd, 78), S Byrne (M Cairns, 63), C Visagie, S Raiwalui, T Ryder, K Chesney, B Russell (D Seymour, 80), H Vyvyan (capt).

Leicester: G Murphy (S Vesty, 75); T Varndell, O Smith (L Lloyd, 63), D Gibson, A Tuilagi; A Goode, H Ellis (A Healey, 41-56 and 64); D Morris (M Holford, 77), G Chuter (J Buckland, 82), J White, L Cullen (J Hamilton, 64), B Kay, L Deacon (S Jennings, 62), L Moody, M Corry (capt).

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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