Tigers' decline hints at unthinkable fall

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The Independent Online

On the morning of the World Cup final Dean Richards felt obliged to leave the comfort of his home and watch the match at a friend's house. "I couldn't relax with four kids running all over the place,'' he said, "so I bought some bacon, sausages and bread and had a fry-up with a couple of mates.''

When Martin Johnson's huge hands got to grips with the Webb Ellis Cup, ex-England internationals probably toasted the victory with a champagne brunch, but that is not Deano's style. In any case he had no time to celebrate. While England were rejoicing in Sydney, Leicester's director of rugby had a bus to catch for the Zurich Premiership appointment at Rotherham. The Tigers won, but as Rotherham have yet to earn a single point, it was hardly surprising.

What is surprising is that Leicester have recorded only four wins this season in the Premiership and have dropped to third from bottom. Of course the club has missed Johno and a whole host of their England forwards, and in their absence the old order in the Premiership has undergone a dramatic change.

Bath, who came within a fraction of being relegated last season, are sitting comfortably at the top. Does it mean that the West Country club, once the dominant force in England, are back where they belong and does it mean that Leicester, the most powerful outfit in Europe, are losing it?

"The players are very upbeat," Richards said. "We know we can produce better and I'm sure you'll see a significant change. Things haven't gone our way, but we have to accept it.''

The problem is that Leicester, for so long the model of a professional club, are in an unacceptable position. Fortress Welford Road, which has the Premiership's biggest crowds, has been stormed. Sale beat them there in the League and the Power-Gen Cup which leaves the Tigers with only one goal - the Heineken Cup.

Last weekend they got off to a bad start in Pool One, losing to Stade Français 26-15 in Paris, which leaves them no room for error this afternoon against Gwent Dragons at Welford Road. Another defeat would effectively end their season. After the visit of Gwent they travel to Belfast to play Ulster on 11 January.

In Leicester's defence they lost almost an entire pack to England's World Cup cause and have also been without Geordan Murphy, recovering from a broken leg. During the 1999 World Cup, the Premiership decided that points for a win would be reduced. England were knocked out at the quarter-final stage and Leicester, despite suffering four defeats while their internationals were away, went on to retain the championship, the second leg of a successive four-timer. The following season they won the Heineken, and then became the only club to retain it.

This year Premier Rugby voted against a points differential during the World Cup. "Needless to say it wasn't our view,'' Peter Wheeler, Leicester chief executive, said. "Four years ago it took time to reintegrate the players and it's going to happen again.

"A lot of core players are coming to the end of their careers and it's very difficult to get a seamless transition. You have to introduce young players at the right time. This is not something you can control under the wage cap, the effects of which are beginning to tell with a levelling-out of the clubs.''

Leicester will mark the contribution of the Tigers pack to England's triumph with a celebration, but not just yet. "The timing isn't right,'' Wheeler said. "We've got a big hole to climb out of.''

So deep in fact that rumours have been circulating that Richards, who has been involved in all Leicester's league title wins, as a player, captain and coach - he succeeded Bob Dwyer in 1998 - could be leaving Welford Road.

''It's all nonsense,'' Richards said. "Our season is going to change. The most disappointing thing is that the quality of rugby in the Premiership has been average. Bath have been winning games that could have gone the other way, but there's no outstanding side.''

That used to be Leicester but signs of their fallibility appeared last season, particularly when they were knocked out of the Heineken Cup at home by Munster. They lost 10 of their league games, finished sixth and qualified for Europe through a wildcard play-off.

They appeared to recruit wisely, signing the ex-All Black Daryl Gibson and the international props Darren Morris and Julian White. However, the mid-season capture of the Springboks full-back Jaco van der West- huyzen, who makes his debut today, smacks of panic.

Why was Tim Stimpson, their record points scorer, tempted to join Perpignan? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that sometimes last season Murphy was preferred at full-back. Stimpson did not hang around and nor did Dan Lyle and Josh Kronfeld, the latter returning to New Zealand last week despite signing up for the season.

The biggest headache for the Tigers is at half-back. Ramiro Pez, who joined from Rotherham, is no Joel Stransky, which leaves the jack of all trades, Austin Healey. Having opted last year for stand-off, which didn't work, he has not played two successive games in the same position. This is unsatisfactory for Leicester and for Healey.

Off the field Leicester's success continues: they have doubled turnover in the last five years and last season became the first club in Europe to break the £10m barrier. Nevertheless season-ticket holders will feel short-changed if the Tigers are no longer in the hunt. As the club is a plc, Richards is answerable not just to the members but a board of directors. If Leicester were a football club Richards would be under pressure. As Welford Road is the Old Trafford of English rugby, the former policeman is already under the cosh.