Saracens hurt Leicester with the rough stuff

Tigers trampled underfoot by Pienaar's mean-eyed pretenders while Bristol count cost of errors
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The Independent Online

The crÿme de la crÿme of English professional rugby are taking their pre-match instructions rather too literally, it appears. Saracens, publicly urged by their financier-in-chief, Nigel Wray, to curtail their Harlem Globetrotter tendencies in favour of the "Vinnie Jones approach", treated the Vicarage Road faithful to a dark, mean-eyed, route-one display that would have had the self-styled terminator of Wimbledon nodding, and occasionally grimacing, in recognition. Pretty they were not.

The crÿme de la crÿme of English professional rugby are taking their pre-match instructions rather too literally, it appears. Saracens, publicly urged by their financier-in-chief, Nigel Wray, to curtail their Harlem Globetrotter tendencies in favour of the "Vinnie Jones approach", treated the Vicarage Road faithful to a dark, mean-eyed, route-one display that would have had the self-styled terminator of Wimbledon nodding, and occasionally grimacing, in recognition. Pretty they were not.

Leicester, on the other hand, looked as though they had been given Corporal Jones as their latest role model. How else to explain the disorganised, panic-stricken sitcom served up by the Tigers yesterday afternoon? Seldom can Austin Healey have spilled so much quality ball and taken so many bum options. Seldom can Neil Back have flirted so dangerously with anonymity, or a Leicester front row injected so little venom into 80 minutes of rugger-buggery. Not only did the Premiership leaders finish tryless, they failed to score a single point in a second half dominated by their most obvious rivals for the title. Just for once, Martin Johnson's hard cases betrayed a soft centre.

"You say we were poor? I think you're being kind to us," groaned Pat Howard, the Leicester centre, with his customary Wallaby-tinged honesty. "Yes, we were pretty damned poor. There's very little we can take out of the game, that's for sure. We like being at the top of the Premiership, it's nice up there. This is a strong competition and on the evidence of this, we've got hard work ahead of us if we're going to stay there."

Contrastingly, François Pienaar, the Springbok icon who finds the managerial hot seat in Watford far hotter than any of the positions he filled in South Africa's back row, made no bones about his relief at the end of a dog-fight of seriously canine proportions. "I knew it wouldn't be a good game, for the simple reason that it was a final for us," he smiled, warm blasts of intense satisfaction accompanying every word. "Three defeats in a week would have made the rest of the campaign very difficult, so the victory was something we all needed. It's a turning point, it kick-starts our season once again.

"Quality? I really wasn't worried about quality. Winning was the only concern."

The victory Pienaar craved was on the cards from the moment Thomas Castaignÿde - now operating under the rather obvious nickname of Thomas Costalot - made the first six-figure tackle of his sojourn on the unfamiliar side of the Channel. Duncan McRae's ghastly fumble in his own in-goal area shortly after the interval presented Leicester with a five-metre platform of limitless offensive potential. The scrum was steady, the ball was flicked wide towards the right corner and when Alistair Newmarch cottoned on to the final pass, the remnants of the Saracens defence looked dead for all the money in the world. Castaignÿde had other ideas, however; he clutched at Newmarch, got enough purchase on the wing to haul him backwards and somehow managed to turn him away from the line.

Leicester offered no further threat, while Saracens, already two points to the good at 11-9, grew an inch or two as a result of the bottle-blond Frenchman's decisive contribution. Muscular work from Scott Murray, Richard Hill and the wonderfully accomplished Tony Diprose earned Castaignÿde a third penalty on 48 minutes - Leicester, dawdling back in a blatant effort to disrupt Sarries' attacking line, were offside in ridiculously large numbers - and the full-back took his clubmates out of sight when Lewis Moody was penalised on the floor five minutes from time.

It may just be that the Midlanders are beginning to pay a heavy price for the blast of early-season publicity generated by Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle, who accused the champions of institutionalised cheating in and around the tackle-ball area. The truth, of course, is that all sides cheat, and cheat as often and as invisibly as they are able. Some, like Leicester, are spectacularly good at it. But having been fingered by one of the Persil-white legends of the red rose game, the refereeing fraternity is clearly taking a keener interest in what the Backs and Johnsons actually do amid the rough and tumble.

Certainly, they received few favours from Nigel Yates yesterday. Even when Ben Johnston, highly effective in the Saracens midfield, pulled back Winston Stanley by the shirt at the risk of dismissal for a second yellow card offence, the home side were given the benefit of the doubt. Johnston stayed on, Tim Stimpson missed an important penalty from left field and the steam finally disappeared from the Leicester effort. There were no complaints, though. They swallowed it whole and disappeared up the M1 with barely a word to anyone.

Perhaps the nature of McRae's solitary try, a sparky individual effort as early as the 11th minute, gave them an inkling of impending defeat. A wild pass from Brett Sparg, the Saracens right wing, was hoovered up by Paul Gustard and the Tigers backs looked quids in as the ball was worked quickly across the width of the field. Sadly for them, Martin Corry's scoring pass to Newmarch was intercepted by McRae, whose instinctive hack ahead hugged the touchline and sat up perfectly for the completion of the score. On any other day, Newmarch would have been in behind the posts at the opposite end. But this was a Sunday at Vicarage Road, not the Tigers' favourite day and certainly not their favourite stadium.

Saracens: Try McRae. Penalties Castaignÿde 4. Leicester: Penalties Stimpson 3.

Saracens: T Castaignÿde; B Sparg, B Johnston (D O'Mahony, 73), K Sorrell, D Luger; D McRae, K Bracken (capt); D Flatman (J White, 54), M Cairns, P Wallace, D Grewcock (W Davison, 69), S Murray, K Chesney, R Hill (B Cole, 69), A Diprose.

Leicester: T Stimpson; A Newmarch, L Lloyd, P Howard (G Gelderbloom, 63), W Stanley; A Healey, J Grindal; D Jelley (G Rowntree, 67), D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay (A Balding, 69), P Gustard (L Moody, 67), N Back, M Corry.

Referee: N Yates (Manchester).

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