I have happy memories of Welford Road last having been there when we did the double over the Tiggers back in 2003, a feat that almost certainly saved us from relegation that season. Being a superstitious creature I stood in virtually the same spot on the Crumbie stand as I had 3 years ago surrounded by a noisy bunch of Irish supporters. Good-natured pre-match banter was exchanged with the good folk of Leicester over a pint or two. All was well. Then I spotted the fourth official …and I knew that we were in trouble. He had no bearing on the outcome of the match but I have never seen Irish play well when he has been in the vicinity. I’m sure Mr Davey is kryptonite to our supermen in green (O.k. white!). No amount of fondling the lucky rabbit paw or amulet or even the four leafed clover could shake the feeling of foreboding.
The match started with Tiggers playing downhill and with a following ref (sorry typo – breeze!). An early Goode penalty was surprisingly missed. An announcement followed informing visitors that we should keep silent during place kicks – not the last time we were incorrectly adjudged to have been in the wrong by the officials as the real culprit was a Tigger supporter off to my right who had accidentally set off his foghorn during Goode’s run up! Goode made amends for his miss soon afterwards to put the home team into a deserved lead. 3-0.
Irish were really struggling without the ball – on 13 minutes at last a clean line out a bullocking run by ‘The Spaniard’ – quick ball but Mr Pearson sees Dodge treating Harry Ellis’ aluminium deficiency and immediately dispatches him to the sin bin for 10 minutes breather. Tiggers rack up the pressure and from a 5 metre ruck Tuilagi is fed the ball and bulldozes over for a try – converted 10-0. There are very few ways of stopping a man of his size from that distance and none of them are legal on the streets let alone on the rugby pitch.
Dodge is back on the pitch but his place warming the bench is soon taken by Ben Kay, I think, for playing the man in the air at the lineout. It looked a harsh decision to me but I felt justice had been done as, a few minutes earlier, Kay had made no effort to use his arms in a tackle as he shoulder barged Delon. Delon took his mandatory 8 count before regaining his feet! Penalty kicked to the corner and from the ensuing line-out Dominic Feanuti received the ball at inside centre and weaved and bounced his way back through the Tigger pack before off-loading to Magne who flopped over the line for a try. No conversion as Rikki missed his second kick. This was the high point for Irish although we had reason to cheer soon after as Tom Varndell had the ball knocked out of his hands by Sailosi (a real mouthful for the Welford Road Fat controller!) as he looked certain to score. Good to know that he is human!
Irish didn’t make the most of their luck as soon after Ellis scored a super try with a show of the ball and sprint through the middle of the Irish defence. There will be some shaking of heads about that try when the video is viewed back at Sunbury. Try converted and a 17-5 mountain to climb. A penalty on the stroke of half-time for slipping of binding in the scrum allowed Goode to make the score 20 – 5. The scrums were unsatisfactory all day. Leicester seemed to have the nudge on in most scrums but this seemed to be before the put in – something Mr Pearson didn’t seem to get a handle on at all during the match.
The day before my trek to Leicester I’d watched one of my other sporting passions win a superb football match in Cardiff. A club built by the great Bill Shankly – he didn’t get many things wrong but sport more important than life or death? – I don’t think so. If we had any doubts about sport’s true place in the grand scheme of things they were dispelled at half-time as Matt Hampson was given a standing ovation as he came onto the pitch for an interview. What an inspiration the young man is and a real credit to his family, club and rugby in general.
After the break an early exchange of penalties left the score at 23 – 8 and Irish seemed to be having more of the ball but were struggling to make headway against a very well organised home defence. As Irish were increasingly trying to force the play errors occurred and one such speculative pass was intercepted by Leon Lloyd who raced three-quarters of the length of the pitch to just beat Saolosi to the corner – conversion missed 28-8.
With ten minutes to go Irish were reduced to running the ball out of defence. On one such foray the ball was turned over by the very impressive Leicester back row and Ellis realising that the Irish full-back was at the bottom of the ruck chipped into space. What followed was an amazing piece of skill worth the trip alone even if it was by an Irishman masquerading as a Tigger! At full pace Geordan Murphy gently lobbed the bouncing ball up off his boot into his hands to score despite close attention from Dodge. I can’t begin to explain how difficult that was or how easy he made it look George Best? No it was better than that! The Steven Gerrard of Welford Road! Converted 35 – 8.
A period of Irish pressure followed but we didn’t really look like scoring although there was time for Smith to cut through our midfield and for Leon Lloyd, despite a very wayward pass, to score again in the corner. Mr Pearson finally gave Irish something as he put us out of our misery with the final score of 40-8. A good old fashioned round of hand-bags followed the final whistle but it seemed to be much ado about nothing.
We were well beaten by a very impressive Tiggers pack that squeezed the life out of us denying our backs ball and ensuring that if we did get the ball that it was so slow it was difficult to do anything with. So our championship season has come to an end – but what a season nine away wins on the trot, a complete whitewash of the west, a bucket load of tries and that wonderful Sunday evening in Wycombe. Thanks to all at London Irish for a wonderful ride (and it’s not over yet).
My man of the match? – Jennings, what a find for Tiggers. Ireland are blessed with very talented flankers at present. He was everywhere and the Leicester back row did what Tigers back rows have always done very well – you can’t play without the ball. It may be perceived as negative but, in rugby, you have to adapt to your surroundings and that includes the referee’s interpretation of the laws. Leicester did that better.
Moment of the match? The Genius of Geordan Murphy.
Star of the Day? – Without doubt Mr Matt Hampson
On wards and upwards – bring on the tractor boys!