Johnson's drive serves warning to All Blacks

Saracens 18 Leicester 26

Chris Hewett
Monday 28 October 2002 01:00
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When in doubt, stick it up the jumper and dare the opposition to go looking for it. The Leicester hard-heads, impeccably marshalled by the outstanding Martin Johnson, who looks more than ready to swap niceties with the All Blacks in 12 days' time, finally bade farewell to the airy-fairy stuff after months of Premiership frustration on the road and squeezed the pips out of Saracens, who struggled to lay a meaningful hand on the ball for long periods of a physical and occasionally fractious contest at Vicarage Road.

The champions claimed two second-half tries to batten down yesterday's game, but if they scored their big points after the interval, they made their big points before it while playing into the wind. Johnson, Martin Corry, Lewis Moody and Neil Back grabbed their hosts by the short and curlies from the kick-off and maintained their grip for the duration. Corry ruled the line-out, Johnson made enormous yardage with his pick-and-drive routine, Back laid hands on the ball at every breakdown and Moody gave the Tigers width with his energetic support work. Together, they delivered a masterclass in forward technique.

Wayne Shelford, the Saracens coach, bemoaned the number of "cheap shots" thrown by forwards of both persuasions. "It's a big problem with British rugby," he said, "because you end up with a hell of a lot of bickering, and the referee spends most of his time sorting out the squabbles. If we're going to have a fight, let's make it a big one."

The New Zealander knows a thing or two about the Queensbury Rules as they relate to the union game, but he must have known that Saracens would have lost a mass punch-up as surely as they lost the game. There is no arguing with the Johnsons and Corrys of this world when they have the beast about them.

Tim Stimpson, who spent the entire match on the wing rather than at full-back, hit the spot with three penalties in the opening 40 minutes, and Leicester would have turned around well clear but for Tom Shanklin's runaway try on 33 minutes.

Young Sam Vesty, cucumber-cool at outside-half despite his tender years, overplayed his hand with a pass to Back in the narrow channel, and once Shanklin had snaffled the interception, Leicester's flat attacking formation ensured a trouble-free gallop to the line.

Fortunate to be a mere point adrift, Saracens beefed themselves up by introducing David Flatman for the second half. Unfortunately for the strong-arm prop, there was precious little time to settle. Kris Chesney's failure to secure the ball from the restart allowed Vesty to scamper behind the defensive line, and intelligent contributions from Back and Geordan Murphy earned Steve Booth a try in the left corner. George Chuter's excessive celebrations gave Saracens the chance of an instant reply, but Andy Goode fluffed the penalty from half-way, just as he had spurned three earlier opportunities.

Saracens did manage to put the wind up the Midlanders when Tim Horan, with a magical pass off his left hand, and Thomas Castaignède, with perfectly-timed acceleration, revived a few old glories by skinning Leicester down the left flank. But there was never any great likelihood of a home victory.

Booth would have claimed a second try early in the final quarter but for some rough stuff at a ruck – Jamie Hamilton received the ear-wigging, even though Moody was clearly the culprit – and when that score was ruled out, the Tigers simply raised their game another notch to give the inventive Murphy a simple show-and-go try with eight minutes remaining.

* The strong winds buffeting much of the country yesterday forced Bristol Shoguns to call off their scheduled Zurich Premiership match at home to Harlequins. The Memorial Stadium Company's health and safety advisers were concerned for the safety of spectators and postponed the game at 10.25am.

Saracens: Tries Shanklin, Castaignede; Conversion Goode; Penalties Goode 2. Leicester: Tries Booth, Murphy; Conversions Stimpson 2; Penalties Stimpson 3; Drop goal Murphy.

Saracens: T Castaignède; T Shanklin, K Sorrell (B Johnston 72), T Horan, D O'Mahony; A Goode, K Bracken (capt; M Williams 72); C Califano, M Cairns, J Marsters (D Flatman H-T), S Hooper, C Yandell (C Quinnell 68), K Chesney, A Roques (A Benazzi, 36), R Hill.

Leicester: G Murphy; T Stimpson, L Lloyd, R Kafer (G Gelderbloom, 48), S Booth; S Vesty, T Tierney (J Hamilton, 62); G Rowntree (P Freshwater, 60), G Chuter, D Garforth (F Tournaire, 80), M Johnson (capt), B Kay, L Moody, N Back, M Corry.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).

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