Who can stop Leicester from becoming the first club in Europe to retain the Heineken Cup? It takes an exceptional team to earn their stripes against Martin Johnson's outfit, particularly at Welford Road, and Llanelli came desperately close to proving themselves the exception to the rule.
The roar of the fanatical crowd and the smell of the warpaint make the opposition patently aware that they are in not so much the Midlands as the Badlands, but the Scarlets restricted the Tigers to a slender victory, four penalties from Tim Stimpson to three by Stephen Jones.
Leicester have lost just one of their last 56 competitive matches at Welford Road, but they were relieved to emerge from the opening of their defence of the Heineken Cup last night with their record intact.
Llanelli, who hardly took a step backwards, opened up a lead midway through the first half after Johnson, the Leicester captain, and David McHugh, the referee, had engaged in a touch of déjà vu. McHugh issued Johnson with a yellow card for punching Llanelli's outstanding prop Martyn Madden.
Afterwards, the Leicester manager Dean Richards said: "I thought the decision was very harsh. Martin was taken off the ball and he reacted to it with a push with the palm of his hand."
Last May, in the final of the Heineken Cup against Stade Français, McHugh sent Johnson to the sin-bin for punching. On that occasion the French club failed to exploit Johnson's absence, and Llanelli repeated the lapse last night. They were leading 6-0 at the time of Johnson's departure, but when the England captain returned his team were level at 6-6.
Leicester were given notice of Llanelli's resolve when they were driven back from a ruck which they had confidently expected to win. The Scarlets suffered a blow after 10 minutes when their Irish international flanker Simon Easterby ran headfirst into Lewis Moody and came off second best. Easterby was out cold for a couple of minutes before being led off suffering from concussion.
However, it was Llanelli who drew first blood when skipper Jones landed a penalty from 35 yards in the 17th minute. They went further ahead three minutes later when, following a period of pressure, Johnson threw his punch at Madden off the ball. As Johnson trudged to the sin-bin, Jones stepped up to kick his second penalty. Without the captain, Leicester raised their game. From the restart Llanelli carelessly failed to secure possession and when they were penalised Stimpson landed the simplest of kicks. Andy Goode was just wide with a drop-goal attempt before Leicester enjoyed their best phase. Rod Kafer combined cleverly with Freddie Tuilagi, who in turn found Steve Booth on the right flank. The wing managed to sprint outside Barry Davies before the cover smothered him near the corner.
Leicester then wasted a fine attacking opportunity when, with men outside and no more than 10 yards from the Llanelli line, Goode chipped ahead. But it was so overdone the ball flew straight into the advertising hoarding. Nevertheless, the Scarlets were penalised for offside and Stimpson made no mistake with the penalty to level the scores at 6-6.
Llanelli responded with the most dangerous attacking move of the match. Matt Cardey and Wayne Proctor combined on the right, where the former was caught a yard short of the line. Once again, referee McHugh had spotted an infringement and Jones slotted his third penalty to regain the lead for the Scarlets.
On the stroke of half-time, Jones was penalised for lying on the ball, but Stimpson missed with a long-range attempt after a small number of Llanelli supporters had booed the full-back as he was preparing to kick. "We're not used to unsporting behaviour at Leicester,'' said the man with the microphone. To disprove that notion, Johnson and Jones then engaged in a wrestling bout about 50 yards off the ball. The result was a penalty to Leicester which Stimpson duly kicked to make it 9-9.
Llanelli's spirit and commitment were as ferocious in the second half as they had been in the first. The magnificent Madden pulled off a try-saving tackle on Stimpson, although it looked high, before the full-back was wide with a penalty attempt from close to the halfway line.
Leicester, without ever looking as relaxed or as dominant here as they have become accustomed, launched a stunning attack down the left flank, spearheaded by the sheer pace of Booth. The wing positioned himself at stand-off and his run down the short side took him past Jones's attempt at a tackle.
The ball was switched inside, but first Neil Boobyer made a tremendous tackle on Tuilagi and then came an even more remarkable effort from the Wales hooker Robin McBryde, who completely flattened Goode as the stand-off took a pass no more than a couple of yards from the Llanelli line.
Austin Healey had been fairly subdued, but it was his well-placed chip ahead after 64 minutes that swung the balance. The Llanelli defence, which had been well organised and courageous, was thrown into confusion and it ended with Leicester being awarded a penalty on the Scarlets' 22. Stimpson, making his 100th first-team appearance for the Tigers, bisected the uprights.
It proved to be the winning kick as the Leicester historian began rummaging through the archives to discover the last time the Tigers had been prevented from scoring a try on home territory.
Next stop in the Cup for Leicester is at Calvisano in Italy. God help them. Calvisano, that is.
Leicester 12 Llanelli 9
Pens: Stimpson 4 Pens: S Jones 3
Half-time: 9-9 Attendance: 15,170
Leicester: T Stimpson; S Booth, G Gelderbloom, R Kafer, F Tuilagi; A Goode (H Ellis, 59), A Healey; G Rowntree, D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, L Moody, M Corry, N Back.
Llanelli: B Davies; W Proctor (N Boobyer, 43), M Cardey, L Davies, S Finau; S Jones (capt), G Easterby; M Madden, R McBryde, J Davies, L Gross, C Wyatt, D Jones, D Hodges, S Easterby (V Cooper, 12).
Referee: D.McHugh (Ireland).Reuse content