Tigers' sharp Chuter aims for the heart of the battle

Heineken Cup: Thriller against mighty Toulouse ends Leicester's turbulent week - and their middle man can't wait
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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson eases his Jaguar XJS out of the Oadby Oval, Leicester's training ground, and heads for yet another testimonial night in the Big Smoke. Only Johnno could get away with attending a black-tie dinner a few days before the Tigers' biggest match of the season, the Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse.

Martin Johnson eases his Jaguar XJS out of the Oadby Oval, Leicester's training ground, and heads for yet another testimonial night in the Big Smoke. Only Johnno could get away with attending a black-tie dinner a few days before the Tigers' biggest match of the season, the Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse.

In his farewell season, Johnson is fortunate to be leading Leicester today after being involved in last Sunday's shenanigans with Saracens. The former Lions and England captain received a yellow card, his third of the season, for fighting with Ben Russell, while Martin Corry got a red for elbowing his fellow Lion Richard Hill, who received six stitches to an eye wound.

Corry, who took over the England captaincy during the Six Nations, appeared before a disciplinary tribunal last Tuesday and received a three-week ban. Johnson's hearing was delayed until tomorrow night, giving him time not only to play today but to lodge his customary appeal, the outcome of which will help determine whether his swansong ends in European and/or Premiership glory or premature ejection.

A few years ago, Johnson was in trouble for injuring Duncan McRae, then the Saracens stand-off. What is it about Leicester and Saracens that requires the presence of a UN peacekeeping force?

"I can't explain it," George Chuter said. "Maybe it stemmed from the early days, when Sarries were the new money and Leicester wanted to prove a point." Chuter should know. He was the Saracens hooker before joining Leicester, and he saw little in last Sunday's clash that warranted an X certificate.

"It's one of those fixtures that stirs the passion of the players, but I really don't know what all the fuss is about," Chuter said. "The early games were a lot dirtier, far more physical, and the quality was much better. There were no yellow cards back then. You took the knocks and got on with it. When you played Leicester, you had to fight fire with fire. If it came down to a brawl you had to brawl them. Tempers fray at this time of the season, and I'd have been disappointed if a lot of aggression wasn't shown. A few things went over the edge, but it was nothing like the 20-man fights we used to have."

Chuter, propped by the England pair Julian White and Graham Rowntree, is expecting another intense affair at the Walkers Stadium today against the aristos of Toulouse who, like Leicester, are bidding to become the first club to reach four Heineken finals. "You only have to listen to Johnno talk about them to realise the huge respect he has for Toulouse," Chuter said. "They have a fantastic scrum, line-out and half-backs. They have internationals all over the place. You could write a book about their strengths and qualities. You can study the videos but they'll still be a bit of a mystery. I hope they're thinking the same about us.

"The loss of Corry is unfor-tunate. He's been a tower of strength, and for me he was the outstanding player in the Six Nations."

It wasn't the first time Corry had been up before the beak. Last October, he and Chuter were cited for stamping on the Bath captain, Jonathan Humphreys, during a fiery Premiership match at Welford Road. Corry was suspended for two weeks, Chuter for six. "We were five yards from their line, Humphreys was lying on the ball and Martin and I gave him a rucking," Chuter said. "They said it was reckless because it was a bit close to his head. Humphreys was prepared to speak up for us, but that doesn't cut a lot of mustard."

Apart from the enforced break Chuter, who had been understudy to Dorian West and Richard Cockerill, is having the season of his career. Few hookers could have scored the try Chuter did in the second leg of their epic Heineken Cup collision with Wasps. "There was a break down the right, I was supporting Austin Healey on the inside and I had Alex King to beat. I just got over in the corner." Chuter, with no room for error, in midair and at full stretch, brilliantly touched down one-handed before colliding with the corner flag. Any threequarter would have been proud of the try.

Having never got beyond recognition for England A, Chuter's form put him in the frame for the Lions tour. He was shopping at Asda when he heard the bad news. "My wife rang, said I wasn't in the squad and then told me to get some milk. I was on the fringe, but the lack of Six Nations experience counted against me. If he'd offered it to me I'd have jumped down Clive Woodward's throat.

"It's very difficult to be too disappointed if you've never been there. I've got other things to think about. We've got a massive end to the season and we can't afford to lose any game. We've scored a lot of points and attacking rugby sells season tickets, but it's defence that wins trophies. That's the real benchmark."

Chuter is a Londoner, born in Greenwich in July 1976. He was delivered at 3pm GMT. If his father had had his way George would be playing cricket for Kent. "My dad played for Kent Schools and was offered a contract by the county, but he chose to study architecture. Cricket was my main sport until I was 15. I used to drive my old man nuts. My demeanour was more suited to rugby. I preferred scrapping with my brothers than keeping a straight bat."

After graduating from Old Mid-Whitgiftians, Chuter joined Saracens at the age of 19, and had five seasons there until taking a sabbatical. "I was mentally stale, and for eight months I got as far away from rugby as I could," he said. An Elvis fan, he visited Graceland. "It was awesome. I love America. You could call me a Yankophile." He also took in the Sydney Olympics. On his return in 2000, Leicester offered him a contract. "I knew what they were all about and I was hoping some of it would rub off on me. It was too good a challenge to turn down."

Chuter has another year at Welford Road, where next season there will be significant changes, not only through the retirement of Johnson and Neil Back but the departure of the coach, John Wells. "That's a big blow," Chuter said. "Wellsy's done a fantastic job, better than he probably thought he could. Leic- ester's loss is England's gain. I'll be very surprised if he isn't fast-tracked from the National Academy to the England set- up. Why he's leaving is between him and the club."

Despite the fall-out from the match with Saracens, Chuter enjoyed returning to Vicarage Road. "They gave me a nice reception. I went into the bar and saw a lot of the Fez boys. There's no bad blood."