Tigers just a kick away

Leicester 19 Harlequins 21
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The Independent Online
It was always going to be the last kick of the match but nobody at Welford Road realised how desperately important it was. Half-way out on the right, some 45 metres from goal, it was difficult but well within John Liley's compass. The Courage League's leading scorer - he has been kicking penalties like this all season - had this one to win the match for Leicester.

The kick was high and true but at the last second it drifted inches wide of the right post and Leicester had lost.

What nobody knew was that if the kick had succeeded, Leicester would have retained their league title by one point after Bath's stumbling draw with Sale.

It was only when they were back in the dressing-room that their skipper Dean Richards found out the Bath result and broke it to his team. "We all found it very difficult to take," said their coach Ian Smith, which must rank as the understatement of the season.

He declined to pin the blame on poor Liley, who, week in, week out, is the most dependable kicker in the Courage League, the First Division's leading points scorer, and who broke his own club scoring record in this match with his second penalty (he also scored Leicester's first try). But in this vital game his aim deserted him - he missed four penalties and two conversions.

"He will be disappointed that his strike rate wasn't as good as it normally is," Smith said. "But there is no suggestion that one individual is responsible for losing this game. We all share the burden of defeat just as we share the pleasure of victory." He was dead right. Leicester looked a pale shadow of the side that had lost only two League games all season. In the end, even their renowned fitness levels could not cope with five games in the last 15 days, including the lucrative but meaningless Sanyo Cup last Sunday. They made a good profit but perhaps they left the title at Twickenham.

But nothing should be taken away from a cocky and combative Quins side who were unrecognisable from the team nearly relegated last season. Dick Best has fashioned them into a tough and competitive outfit. If one man can be said to typify their new approach it is the former West Hartlepool lock Mick Watson, playing at No 8 in place of the injured Chris Sheasby. His raw, no-holds barred approach was just what was needed yesterday, and he played a big role in frustrating the Tigers.

Quins matched Leicester up front and regularly hit them on the counter- attack after the boost of a first-minute try from Daren O'Leary.

The promising English Students' scrum-half Nick Walshe intercepted a poor Niall Malone pass to put Peter Mensah in for another. A Neil Back try finally got Leicester in front with seven minutes left but Paul Challinor's neat last-minute dropped goal sealed the Tigers' fate.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, R Robinson, R Underwood; N Malone, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, C Tarbuck, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Harlequins: J Staples (G Wright, 40); D O'Leary, W Greenwood, P Mensah, S Bromley; P Challinor, N Walshe; J Leonard (capt), S Mitchell, A Mullins, A Snow, S Lloyd, G Allison, M Watson, R Jenkins.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).