Leicester rock champions
By Ben Blackmore. Last Updated: 01/09/06 2:24pm
Guinness Premiership, Welford Road, Sunday September 3, 16.00, live on Sky Sports 1
Last season's beaten Premiership finalists Leicester scored a major psychological blow on the opening weekend of the campaign, beating defending champions Sale 35-23 at Welford Road.In a keenly contested fixture that belied any suggestions of match rustiness, the Tigers' superior team performance proved too much for the individual qualities in the Sale side. Led by the refreshed Martin Corry, the hosts ran in tries through Geordan Murphy, Louis Deacon and the skipper himself, before a penalty try clinched the game and the bonus point for hosts. Leicester's Harry Ellis was ruled out with a hamstring tweak ahead of kick-off, but individual duals still littered the lush Welford Road pitch as England's top two went head-to-head. England internationals Tom Varndell and Andy Goode stood opposite counterparts Mark Cueto and Charlie Hodgson, while Sebastien Chabal had Corry in his line of destruction. In last season's end-of-season showpiece, Hodgson was the major difference as he orchestrated the Sale attack, but this time he was upstaged by the endeavour of his international skipper Corry. Fired up by the memory of the 45-20 thumping they received at Twickenham back in May, the Tigers came roaring out of the blocks, swamping every ruck in pursuit of an early score. Goode failed to oblige with a highly-kickable penalty, and three minutes later Hodgson punished him with unerring accuracy. The momentum remained with Leicester though, and they deservedly went 7-3 ahead on 10 minutes as Murphy burst past Jason White to capitalise on more good work from his pack. Pat Howard's men continued to attack with vigour as Scott Bemand led a lightening counter attack from the hosts' own 22, but the half-back's pass was a fraction wide of Varndell who looked odds-on to build on his 14-try tally of last season. The scent of revenge was clear in the voices of the Welford Road faithful, and their men were responding, with Louis Deacon extending the lead to 12-3 on 18 minutes. More relentless phase-building saw Varndell move stealthily into midfield, and he was on hand to execute the overlap from which Deacon capitalised. Sale had no answers from Leicester's 20-minute burst, but the intensity of the hosts inevitably had to peter out, allowing Hodgson to haul his side in front on the half-hour mark. The classy England stand-off found the tightest of holes to attack in the Leicester defence, and he showed good acceleration to scythe through under the posts. Two further penalties extended the score to 16-12 in the champions' favour, and they took that lead into the break thanks to some fine last-ditch defensive work from Jason Robinson. Sale suffered two key injury problems ahead of the second period, with Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe replaced by brother Juan Martin, while Chabal departed for Chris Day. The loss of forward power had an instant impact, with the Tigers reclaiming the lead inside two minutes of the restart thanks to a super rolling maul that saw captain Corry emerge with the ball. However, this match was perched on a knife-edge, and typically Sale found an instant response, although the perpetrator could not have been predicted. French hooker Sebastien Bruno, finding himself out wide on the left flank, threw a super side-step to burst over from 15 yards for 23-19. Two Goode penalties then kept the pendulum swinging as Leicester edged ahead, before coach Pat Howard introduced the muscle of Henry Tuilagi and Seru Rabeni. A further three-pointer took the score to 28-23 in the Tigers' favour, and soon they had a numerical advantage as Chris Jones saw yellow for a cynical shoulder charge. Tuilagi and Rabeni's impact was significant in the closing stages and the latter almost created the match-clinching score so desperately coveted by the home support, but the ball was held up over the line. In the end, it made little difference as the Tigers' pack continued to go for the jugular, and the raised arm of referee Tony Spreadbury confirmed the try that handed Leicester all five points.