Planet Rugby

Tigers crowned kings of England

16th May 2009 19:29


Scott Hamilton Mike Catt

Leicester's Scott Hamilton gets past Mike Catt of London Irish

Leicester Tigers clinched the Guinness Premiership title by the narrowest of margins at Twickenham on Saturday, eking out a turgid 10-9 victory over London Irish in a grand final that failed to live up to its top billing.

Yes, it was tight. At times it was exciting. But it wasn't the bookend that this magical season of Premiership rugby deserved.

Will Leicester care? Of course not. They have forgotten more about play-off rugby than most clubs will ever learn, and know that style is not a prerequisite to winning.

What you do need is a streetwise streak - and you can land Air Force One on Leicester's.

Indeed, the Exiles were equal to the Tigers in every department but the most important one: composure.

The menacing presence of the serial champions caused the Exiles to doubt their own strengths - the very strengths that had brought them to this exalted plain.

Instead of looking to go wide, they opted to take Leicester head on at the set-piece and breakdown.

It worked well enough for much of the first half, but their new-found machismo morphed into masochism when they forwent shots at goal for stabs at scrummaging.

Leicester absorbed the pressure, rope-a-dope style, and hit back once the Irish fires had dimmed.

Their response wasn't the Blitz, just one well-placed punch in the shape of a try - the only one of the game - from Jordan Crane.

The number eight's penalty strike enabled Leicester to beat the Cardiff Blues in the recent Heineken Cup semi-final shoot-out, and he once again came to his side's rescue.

But it was the Exiles who drew first blood. A poor clearance from Sam Vesty from the start fell to Peter Hewat and he dropped a nonchalant goal with 22 seconds on the clock.

The early score stirred hopes that the league's two leading try-scoring teams would put on a show, but the game quickly solidified into a nervy, stoppage-strewn stalemate.

Leicester's Julien Dupuy, keeping a Lion on the bench, levelled the scoreline with an 18th-minute penalty in what could be his penultimate game for Tigers before a possible return to France next season.

A penalty miss from Delon Armitage then led to a slight change of tack from the Irish and Paul Hodgson sparked the first really exciting raid of the game with a tap-and-go in the 23rd minute.

The speed of the attack forced the Tigers to kill the ball, but Hewat's subsequent pop at goal came off the upright. Lady Luck, not for the first time this season, waved her Leicester flag from on high.

London Irish then upped the gears and Leicester could only cling grimly on.

The Midlanders looked empty and nothing demonstrated this better than the sight of Chris Hala'Ufia busting his way though four would-be tacklers - and they weren't halfbacks, they were Crane, Julian White, Ben Kay and George Chuter.

Delon Armitage missed another shot at goal but still the Irish pressed, and an uncharacteristically dainty grubber from Seilala Mapusua caused Leicester all sorts of bother. It needed the footballing brilliance of Geordan Murphy to deny Delon Armitage the try.

But still the Exiles pushed, opting for a scrum when Vesty killed a close-raid move.

That scrum led to Jordan Crane being pinged by Wayne Barnes, and this time the referee chose to flash his yellow card.

Yet another scrum was called, but some furious Leicester defence forced the knock-on and the Exiles went to the break at 3-3 and with nothing to show for their muscular efforts.

The Exiles took up where they left off and the opening minutes of the second half saw them packing down on Leicester's line after Scott Hamilton was forced to ground a dink through.

But, again, the position came to nought with Mapusua found guilty of holding on after a brilliant intervention from Ben Woods.

Delon Armitage then finally broke the stalemate from the tee after Marcos Ayerza was pinged for coming in from the side.

The setback shunted the Tigers into something resembling life and a fabulous break from Dan Hipkiss soon had the Exiles in reverse.

The raid heralded a good spell of pressure from the Tigers, a spell punctuated by Crane's try that led directly from good work from Lewis Moody and Ayoola Erinle.

The Exiles mounted a game comeback with Mike Catt pulling at some desperate strings.

Delon Armitage even slotted a penalty with nine minutes to play to leave his club just two points from its greatest ever achievement.

Alas, it was not to be. The rebellion had been stamped out. Goliath had slain David.

Man of the match: Was it Stuart Barnes who coined the phrase "symbolic man of the match"? We might have to extend such a gong to Geordan Murphy. He is the living embodiment of Leicester's icy countenance - and it helped that he put in another fine performance. The Exiles were manful to a man, with Chris Hala'Ufia and Steffon Armitage giving their all.

Moment of the match: It has to be the closing stages of the first half. Would Irish eyes be smiling if they had opted to bank a few points? All academic now.

Villian of the match: Some cynical defence from the Tigers, but as our elected members of parliament would say: it was all more-or-less within the laws of the game. No award.

The scorers:

For Leicester Tigers:

Try: Crane

Con: Dupuy

Pen: Dupuy

For London Irish:

Pens: D Armitage 2

Drop: Hewat

Yellow card(s): Crane (Leicester Tigers) - killing the ball, 39.

The teams:

Leicester Tigers: 15 Geordan Murphy (c), 14 Scott Hamilton, 13 Ayoola Erinle, 12 Dan Hipkiss, 11 Johne Murphy, 10 Sam Vesty, 9 Julien Dupuy, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Ben Woods, 6 Craig Newby, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Tom Croft, 3 Julian White, 2 George Chuter, 1 Marcos Ayerza.

Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Dan Cole, 18 Louis Deacon, 19 Lewis Moody, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Matt Smith, 22 Tom Varndell.

London Irish: 15 Peter Hewat, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Delon Armitage, 12 Seilala Mapusua, 11 Sailosi Tagickibau, 10 Mike Catt, 9 Paul Hodgson, 8 Chris Hala'Ufia, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Declan Danaher, 5 Bob Casey (c), 4 James Hudson, 3 Richard Skuse, 2 Danie Coetzee, 1 Clarke Dermody.

Replacements: 16 Alex Corbisiero, 17 James Buckland, 18 Gary Johnson, 19 Richard Thorpe, 20 Elvis Seveali'i, 21 Peter Richards, 22 Tom Homer.

Referee: Wayne Barnes

Touch judges: Dave Pearson, Robin Goodliffe

Television match official: Bob Ockenden, Graham Hughes

By Andy Jackson

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