Varndell's quick work points to clubs' dilemma

Leicester 40 Bath 26
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The Independent Online

And what will happen the moment Andy Robinson, the national coach, summons the 20-year-old to a gathering of the red-rose élite - along with Ollie Smith, Harry Ellis, Graham Rowntree, George Chuter, Julian White, Ben Kay, Lewis Moody, Martin Corry and just about every other half-decent player whose talents have been identified, developed and maximised by the most successful British team of the professional era? Why, there will be another row with the Rugby Football Union, of course. It is as plain as the nose spreadeagled across the face of the Bath lock Steve Borthwick at the end of Saturday's game.

It is not the peasants who are revolting at Welford Road these days. The revolutionaries are to be found rather higher up, among the executives at their laptops and the board members at their canapés. Their complaint? The proposed expansion of international release days for England players, which would strip clubs of their most influential personnel for more than a third of the domestic campaign, even to the point of encroaching on Heineken Cup business. Their weapon? The contracts binding those players to the place of principal employment. The potential for meltdown? Greater than at any point in the last five years.

As one very senior member of the Leicester hierarchy said at the weekend: "It takes some believing, because it's almost impossible to do, but the RFU have turned this, the most conservative and traditional of clubs, into one spoiling for a political scrap. At the moment, we are of a mind to say to Twickenham: 'If you want a fight, let's have a fight.' It doesn't give any of us any pleasure to be in this situation, but it's about bloody time these people recognised the value of the Premiership - the fact that England won a World Cup because of the Premiership, not in spite of it."

The RFU have never concealed the fact that, having failed to sign the leading players to central contracts when they had the chance a decade ago, they would not hesitate to do so if another opportunity arose. There again, the finest of all England teams was forged in the fires of professional club rugby. But the rumpus over the ill-conceived 11-week rest period, flouted so brazenly by Leicester and Sale over the last three weeks, has resuscitated the issue, to the extent that Wednesday's meeting of the union's management board will be the most politically charged since the bad old days of Cliff Brittle and his merry band of stone-agers.

It was against this backdrop of seething discontent - against the sound of Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, reminding all and sundry that only £400,000 of the club's £12.6m turnover comes from central payments for player release; against the mutterings about Robinson and his expansionist plans - that Varndell illuminated this piano-shifters' convention with a sublime sonata or two.

"I don't want to get carried away on this subject because Tom is a work in progress, but if the circumstances were right he could play Test rugby today," said Pat Howard, the Leicester coach. The youngster, a teenager until last Friday, intercepted Matt Perry's pass to open the scoring on 28 seconds and helped create a wonderful try for Geordan Murphy by calling for, and gathering, a gentle toe-prod of a kick tight to the left touchline before scooting away on the overlap to pull the sheet from under a courageous Bath fightback.

Eleven points adrift shortly before the interval, the West Countrymen reacted when David Bory, the French international wing playing his first competitive fixture since signing from Castres and a performer of outstanding quality on the day, sent Andrew Higgins clear with clever pass out of contact. Andy Dunne then dropped a goal before Bory intervened again, plucking a floated pass from Andy Goode out of the air and romping in from half-way.

With Olly Barkley kicking his goals for once - between them, he and the Bath coach, John Connolly, decided to do away with the services of the England kicking specialist, Dave Alred and revert to Barkley's old routine, which will no doubt darken Robinson's mood still further - Leicester were beginning to go weak at the knees.

But Goode reduced the deficit to three points following an indisciplined challenge by Lee Mears on the wild-haired Alesana Tuilagi, and when Varndell crossed at the left corner following some inspired ball-pilfering from the busy young lock James Hamilton, the momentum was all theirs.

Quite where English rugby's momentum will be by the end of the week is another point entirely. With the union, or with the clubs?

As Wheeler said: "The strength of the England team comes from a vibrant Premiership. The RFU wish it didn't. But they ignore this fact to their cost."

Clearly, the clubs are not for turning.

Leicester: Tries Varndell 2, Murphy, Jennings; Conversions Goode 4; Penalties Goode 4. Bath: Tries Higgins, Bory; Conversions Barkley 2; Penalties Barkley 3; Drop goal: Dunne.

Leicester: G Murphy; A Healey (A Tuilagi, 56), L Lloyd (O Smith, 56), D Gibson, T Varndell; A Goode, H Ellis; A Moreno (M Holford, 68), G Chuter (E Taukafa, 71), J White, L Deacon, B Kay (J Hamilton, 52), W Johnson, S Jennings, M Corry (capt).

Bath: M Perry; F Welsh (S Finau, 25), A Higgins, O Barkley, D Bory; A Dunne, M Wood (N Walshe, 59); D Barnes, L Mears, M Stevens (D Bell, 67), S Borthwick (capt, J Hudson, 40-41, 65-67), D Grewcock, A Beattie, G Delve (J Scaysbrook, 67), I Fea'unati.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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