Tigers owe survival to Tim

European Cup: Leicester keep campaign alive by scraping through contest of wobbly heavyweights
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Leicester held it together. Just. But, in boxing terms, they were saved by the bell as the formidable Stade Français pack once again bore down on the Tigers line in the closing seconds. A try would have brought the French level and the way Diego Dominguez had been potting penalties all afternoon, the winning conversion would have been a mere formality. But the referee, Clayton Thomas, blew his whistle just in time, French heads slumped, Martin Johnson's arms reached into the night as Leicester maintained a tenuous hold on their future in the Heineken European Cup.

Leicester held it together. Just. But, in boxing terms, they were saved by the bell as the formidable Stade Français pack once again bore down on the Tigers line in the closing seconds. A try would have brought the French level and the way Diego Dominguez had been potting penalties all afternoon, the winning conversion would have been a mere formality. But the referee, Clayton Thomas, blew his whistle just in time, French heads slumped, Martin Johnson's arms reached into the night as Leicester maintained a tenuous hold on their future in the Heineken European Cup.

No one expected anything other than a good old-fashioned rumble between two rugby powerhouses. Despite the flattering anthem "Let me entertain you" which greets the Tigers on to the pitch, there has never been much room for ornament in these parts. All we needed here was a strong driving rain and a touch of East Midland mist.

Clive Woodward must have enjoyed his return to old haunts at least. The Welford Road welcome to the England coach consisted of some half-hearted applause and some hearty jeers. As every former England player has jumped on the anti-Woodward bandwagon, the only surprise was the strength of the support. But you felt Tigers fans might be less gullible than to blame him for England's ills.

A return to Heineken Cup action has deflected some of the attention away from international troubles, though Leicester's defeat by Leinster in their opening pool game hardly augured well for the strength of the English challenge on the return to the European trail. Minds were clearly elsewhere that night, but it might be regarded as a trifle vindictive down Sydney way that the response of Dean Richards, the Tigers' manager of rugby, to the ignominy was to drop his two Australian internationals, Pat Howard and John Welborn.

In the spirit of blooding young home talent, however, Richards kept faith with the 19-year-old duo of Andy Goode and James Grindal at half-back. Put the two CVs side by side and spot the difference: both come from King Henry VIII school in Coventry, which numbers David Duckham among its old boys, both played schools cricket for Warwickshire, furthered their education at Loughborough University, support Coventry City, joined the Tigers on the same day. Their one match on opposite sides led to complete confusion, a mistaken pass one to the other and an inevitable draw. Richards clearly believes they come as a package, but with Austin Healey back fit again after his World Cup labours, it was an act of extreme faith to pair them in a match which Leicester dared not lose.

Like Leicester, Stade Français have taken time to find their form this season. With eight of their squad on World Cup duty, their league record to the end of October read: played four, lost three, drawn one - an abject return for the French Cup holders and former champions. The recent appointment of their coach, Bernard Laporte, to succeed Jean-Claude Skrela as national coach hardly helped their rehabilitation, though last weekend's 50-point rout of Aurillac heralded a return to form.

The pulsating finale did not disguise the mediocrity of much of a match dominated by the forwards and by the right boots of Tim Stimpson for Leicester and Dominguez for Stade Français. From the first pass of the game, which looked suspiciously forward by the Tigers, the French were convinced they would be on the wrong end of Clayton Thomas's whistle and when a try by Thomas Lombard midway through the first half was wrongly disallowed for a forward pass, conspiracy theories were rife among the small but vocal French contingent.

Leicester edged ahead early, thanks to the first of Stimpson's five penalties, and stayed there until 10 minutes from time. it was Stimpson, too, who provided the one high spot of an otherwise surprisingly tepid first half. Picking up the ball inside his own half tight to the right touchline, the England full-back grub-kicked ahead into space, hacked on again and, when the hapless Christophe Laussucq fumbled the clearance, Stimpson, by now having gained the momentum of an inter-city 125, careered on to score. Laussucq held his head and sunk to his knees in the realisation that such clangers lose matches like this.

At half-time, Leicester had an eight-point cushion and when, transformed for a brief period into a passable imitation of the Fijians, Leon Lloyd sidestepped Christophe Dominici to score under the posts, that seemed to be that for the French. Not many sides claw back a 15-point lead at Welford Road. But this is not a vintage Leicester side.

Instead of rolling over as so many Franch sides have done in the past, Stade Français rolled up their sleeves and drove forward. A pushover try credited to Pieter de Villiers, a South-African born French international, started the French comeback, and 16 unanswered points later, Stade Français had slipped ahead. The home crowd were rubbing their eyes in disbelief. The sight of Richard Cockerill,arriving like a bull terrier off the bench, gladdened hearts, but two more mighty hoofs by Stimpson re-established Leicester's advantage and the cheers at the final whistle, as Stade Français were camped on the Leicester line, were tinged with relief. It was close, mighty close and it might not be the victors who take greatest heart from the scoreline.

Leicester: T Stimpson, A Healey, W Greenwood (P Howard, 40), L Lloyd, D Lougheed, A Goode, J Grindal; D Jelley (P Freshwater, 62), D West (R Cockerill, 70), G Rowntree, M Johnson, B Kay (J Welborn, 53), P Gustard, N Back, M Corry.

Stade Français: A Gomes (N Burrows, 40); C Dominici, F Comba, T Lombard, N Raffault, D Dominguez, C Laussucq; S Marconnet, F Landreau, P de Villiers, D Auradou, H Chafffardon, D George (C Moni, 46), R Pool-Jones (M Liÿvremont, 58), C Juillet.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).

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