Tigers turn on power

Courage League: Champions fail to sustain a free-running start as Saracens' fighting spirit goes unrewarded
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The Independent Online
THE intentions were honourable, the result was predictable, the impressions were on the whole favourable. If only Leicester had been able to sustain the unsurpassing brilliance of the running and inter-passing which created Steve Hackney's try in the first half, the game would have been sheer delight.

Unfortunately, Leicester all too often reverted to the ponderous predictability of last season, when they used the body rather than the ball to take opponents out of the game. This was in part due to the dogged persistence of wholly committed opponents.

Despite this there was no doubt that the new half-back pairing of Jamie Hamilton and Niall Malone holds out the promise of brighter things to come. At times they ignited moments of uncharacteristic flamboyance involving both forwards and backs, none better than the cascade of switches and passes which produced a glorious try for the right-wing Hackney, whose dive-in at the left-hand corner completed a move involving almost every member of the side.

Yet in spite of the defeat and the margin of victory, which was inflated by two tries in the second half, Saracens can comfort themselves with the thought that they competed fiercely from start to finish. Furthermore, for the first half at least, they had enjoyed the territorial advantage. In Anthony Diprose and Richard Hill they had forwards at least as good as Leicester's best and in Mark Burrows they had the most argumentative.

Right or wrong in his protests he showed throughout a wilful disregard for rugby's enduring virtue that the referee's decision is final. If Saracens were, however, aggrieved that the overwhelming majority of the referee's decisions went against them, there were times when it seemed that their outrage was fully justified.

Not that it would have changed anything. Leicester were manifestly the superior side, in their better moments displaying a greater awareness of what the modern game is all about. The swift release of the ball from forwards to backs, the explosive running of the link men and the dynamicism of the front five were all in tune with contemporary thinking and should serve the club well throughout what promises to be another successful campaign. For the most part during those golden moments Saracens could only stand and stare, and that usually from an offside position.

But the fact that Saracens were able to call upon all of those who had played last season was a triumph of sorts for a club which has suffered more than most from the ravages of poaching. Yesterday they rediscovered the painful truth that what may be good enough to win promotion from the Second Division is seldom sufficient to prevent relegation from the first.

When Leicester chose to turn it on Saracens were bemused and bedraggled, undone by the speed of their opponents' thrusts and the variety of their attacking formations. It was not the bruising running of their muscular forwards, it was the foraging and ferreting of Neil Back whose savagely trimmed blond thatch has not in any way diminished his effectiveness about the field. If those around him ever come up to speed with his thought and deed then heaven help the opposition.

There remains a blinkered predictability in midfield despite the occasional shaft of light from Stuart Potter and Richie Robinson. Potter broke through some indifferent tackling in the second half to release Underwood for his try and Robinson broke through the middle to score Leicester's third try shortly afterwards. But for much of the time he resembled a startled rabbit, and five minutes from the end he literally threw away the best scoring opportunity of the match under the Saracens posts.

There were several other good chances lost by others throughout the game; this early in the season it is perhaps asking too much for things to run smoothly. Three tries seemed scant reward for Leicester's positive approach and yet Saracens are no doubt mystified that despite their wholehearted effort they lost by 28 points. They will at least have that spirit to warm them through what could be a chill winter.

Leicester: J Liley (C Johnson, 73); S Hackney, S Potter, R Robinson, R Underwood; N Malone, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, N Back, D Richards (capt).

Saracens: A Tunningley; P Harries, J Buckton, D Dooley, P Butler; A Lee, B Davies (capt); R Andrews, G Botterman, S Wilson, M Langley, M Burrows, J Green, R Hill, A Diprose.

Referee: A Rossall (RFU).