Johnson silenced at the last

Leicester 12 Bath 13: The first day of a brave new world

Hugh Godwin
Sunday 30 November 2003 01:00

What began with tides of good cheers and stamping of feet ended in near silence, for not even the return of so many World Cup conquering heroes can compensate Leicester's loyal supporters for a heart-rending loss like this. Anti-climactic indeed, unless you happened to be connected with Bath, the runaway leaders of the Zurich Premiership.

The mood of the nation was reflected in a capacity crowd initially displaying such goodwill that they managed a decent-sized roar for Bath's three England players during the ceremonial reading of the team-sheet. But not even a week of Sydney-inspired benevolence could console the Tigers fans when their fly-half, Ramiro Pez, missed a winning shot at the posts with the last kick. England may be on top of the world, ma, but the Tigers are playing like dirty rats.

It was standing room only - and not even that for a while, with crushes developing at each corner of the Crumbie Terrace in front of the main stand. But, in proper Leicester fashion, the showmanship was kept to a minimum. BBC Radio Leicester's lunchtime news had led off with drunken teenagers in Melton Mowbray and the Webb Ellis Cup was at Newcastle (it is not due at Welford Road until the New Year).

Wryly, the public address announcer reported that Ben Kay and Julian White's members' evening had been moved from 8 December - something about a double booking with the Queen and Tony Blair - and, with a modicum of theatre, Martin Johnson's name-check was saved until last. Even then Leicester's totem was quick to point out that a game was afoot, brusquely shooing away a posse of photographers from the dugout.

With the Heineken Cup starting next week, the Tigers gave each of their seven-strong England contingent a run-out of some sort. Johnson made his entry at half-time, but Bath continued their remarkable reversal of form after avoiding relegation on points difference last season.

The visitors' worst moment came when Mike Catt limped off with a strained hamstring - not least because the fly-half got through the last six weeks with England with no such problem - but he need not be rushed back for the less-taxing Parker Pen Challenge Cup tie against L'Aquila in the next fortnight.

Rugby's enduring problem, of course, is that the nuances of the game will continue to mystify the David Beckham shirt-buyer in the street. As if to ram home the point, Roy Maybank, the referee, ably assisted by assorted members of both packs, churned out scrummage after shambolic scrummage in which no one - least of all, it seemed, Maybank - knew what on earth was going on.

It did not help that Bath's pack was down to seven men before half time. Flanker James Scaysbrook was withdrawn after the sending-off of Martyn Wood, the scrum-half shown an immediate red card for stamping on Lewis Moody at a ruck. Wood, who like Leicester's Austin Healey flew to Australia and back during the World Cup without so much as infiltrating the England hotel, was off on another pointless journey.

Given that Maybank had dismissed Bath's Michael Lipman for use of the boot the previous week a persecution complex might have set in. But this team are made of stern stuff. Two penalties by Pez gave Leicester a 6-0 lead inside 10 minutes, but Bath remaineddangerous. Andrew Higgins weaved to the line for the only try after 16 minutes, which Olly Barkley converted before adding a penalty just before the interval.

Moody got clattered at the outset of the start of the second half and gave way to Back. But no amount of medal-waving was going to worry Bath. Two more Pez penalties sneaked the home side in front, but a Tiger hand in a ruck allowed Barkley to make it 13-12. Andy Beattie embarrassed the hosts - Johnson and all - by stealing up the blind side of a defensive line-out deep in Bath's 22. And Pez's first penalty miss, after Healey was wide with a drop-kick, finally silenced the majority.

Leicester: A Healey; F Tuilagi (G Gelderbloom, 76), O Smith, D Gibson, J Holtby; R Pez, T Tierney (S Vesty, 64); G Rowntree (capt, D Morris, 20), J Richards (D West, 53), J White, L Deacon, B Kay (M Johnson, 40), M Corry, A Balding, L Moody (N Back, 43).

Bath: M Perry; W Human, A Higgins (R Kydd, 54), O Barkley, S Danielli; M Catt (M Tindall, 25), M Wood; D Flatman, J Humphreys (capt, L Mears, 57), D Bell (M Stevens, 64), S Borthwick, R Fidler (D Grewcock, 64), A Beattie, I Feaunati, J Scaysbrook (H Martens, 27).

Referee: R Maybank (London).

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