Back's class proves decisive for the stick-in-the-muds

Leicester 9 Wasps 6

Hugh Godwin@HughGodwin_
Sunday 03 November 2002 01:00
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The weather was foul; the excuses even worse. Dean Richards, Leicester's director of rugby, described the conditions as atrocious and while it was, indeed, wet – and grew steadily wetter all afternoon – the pitch looked in perfect nick at the finish, unlike the mudheaps Richards graced in his playing pomp. Tryless and clueless would be one way of summing it up, but Richards and Leicester were not going to turn down the win which leapfrogged them over Wasps and into third in the Premiership table.

This was emphatically not one of those low-scoring affairs which knots the stomach through the tension of two packs going at it hammer and tongs. Passes were dropped, line-out throws rarely hit the intended recipients, and the mind wandered long before the end to the medical bulletins of various England players eyeing Saturday's tussle with the All Blacks.

Austin Healey sat out a second match in seven days with Achilles tendon trouble, and Richards said of the fly-half, who is England's scrum-half cover: "I doubt if he will make it," adding he did not expect Healey to be fit even to train until Thursday. Lewis Moody, absent from Leicester's back row with a foot injury, is closer to full health.

Among those who were able to display their wares, Neil Back earned Richards's acclaim as player of the day, and two other past or present England captains, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson, did more or less what would be expected of them. Somehow, though, the sum of the parts left all concerned in a rather unedifying hole.

Wasps scored first – a penalty by Mark van Gisbergen – but though Dallaglio refused to make like Venus di Milo, shifting from one foot to the other as Tim Stimpson lined up five penalty kicks between the 18th and 32nd minutes, the full-back potted three of them for a lead of 9-3.

Van Gisbergen had survived a scare in Leicester's first attack, when he was charged down close to his goal line, and was thankful for a crunching tackle by Fraser Waters on Leicester's scrum-half, Jamie Hamilton.

It was as close to a try as we got. Wasps' misdemeanours swiftly mounted up, and Dallaglio was seen to give his No 8, Peter Scrivener, a mini-lecture in ball presentation after one ruck went wrong. The third member of the back row, Paul Volley, also had a talking-to, in his case from the referee after a late tackle on Sam Vesty that gave Stimpson his fifth shot at the posts.

Without Rob Howley at scrum-half – the Welshman was said by his club to be nursing a bruised arm, despite being named among the replacements – Wasps lacked momentum. They have never won a league match here, and their chances of breaking the duck were not improved by committing too many men to the breakdown. In a rare visit to the Leicester 22 towards the end of the first half, Simon Shaw was required not only to win the line-out for Wasps but track round to make the link in midfield too. It's a tough life for the modern second row. The same movement ended with a high tackle on a Wasp, and Van Gisbergen halved Tigers' lead.

Stimpson missed another long range kick at the start of the second half, and switched to finding touch instead with his next two penalties. It made little difference. Even when Trevor Leota's shaky line-out throw was stolen by Johnson within five metres of the Wasps line, Leicester could only turn over possession as they attempted to maul their way to a score.

Doubtless many a curse escaped the players' lips regarding the slippery ball, but the quality of passing was variable to say the least.

Van Gisbergen missed a penalty after 61 minutes, but Wasps appeared to be on to a good thing as Howley, Kenny Logan and Will Green trotted on soon after. Welford Road held its breath as Howley and Van Gisbergen chased a kick ahead up the left touchline – remember, a sequence of 55 home Premiership matches unbeaten before yesterday was at stake – but Back and Jamie Hamilton tirelessly and efficiently covered at the corner flag. A microcosm of what has made Leicester great these past few years, if on this occasion one of few memorable moments.

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, L Lloyd, G Gelderbloom, S Booth; S Vesty (C McMullen, 77), J Hamilton; P Freshwater, D West (G Chuter, 65), D Garforth (F Tournaire, 70), M Johnson (capt), B Kay, J Kronfeld, M Corry, N Back.

Wasps: P Sampson; J Lewsey, F Waters, M Denney, J Rudd (K Logan, 63); M van Gisbergen, M Wood (R Howley, 63); C Dowd, T Leota, D Molloy (W Green, 63), S Shaw, J Beardshaw (M Lock, 70), L Dallaglio (capt), P Scrivener (R Birkett, 70), P Volley.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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