Tigers create history at Bath's expense
May 13, 2001
Martin Johnson and Pat Howard lift the Zurich Championship trophy
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Leicester won the inaugural Championship final with chilling efficiency, shutting Bath out of the contest once they had taken a 17-3 lead, ten minutes into the second half.
Many believed that this eight team play-off competition was a step too far, stuffed in the calendar over three weekends between the end of the Premiership and the Heineken Cup final. That Leicester won all three is testament to their pragmatic approach and all round superiority under the management of Dean Richards in the early years of professional rugby.
Leicester's eyes were set firmly on the bigger, European prize against Stade Francais, but Richards spurned the opportunity to rest his top players, instead playing a full strength team to use this match as a dress rehearsal for Paris. Only when the match was all but won did he send on the replacements to spare the stars.
Richards acknowledged, before the match, that finals could be disappointing affairs but was unapologetic. "Teams play to their strengths, and to the opposition's weaknesses. It's not a case of trying to please people. You have to give yourself the best chance of winning the competition."
Bath had won all of their previous ten cup finals at Twickenham, three of them against Leicester. With an exciting set of young backs, marshalled by Mike Catt, they had potential to score tries, as they had done in scoring 36 points against Wasps in the semi-final. In the event, they were starved of possession for much of the game. Their forwards failed to match Leicester in the set pieces, being "totally outgunned" and "physically immature" according to Jon Callard, Bath's director of rugby.
Despite a mis-firing lineout, Bath's best scoring opportunity came midway through the first half. It was the only period in which Leicester looked vulnerable as Australian centre Shaun Berne came close to scoring, only to be smothered by Austin Healey's cover tackle. Berne left the fray with a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments, and Bath didn't recover.
Iain Balshaw looks less than impressed © Getty Images
Matt Perry opened the scoring with a penalty for Bath, but Leicester went ahead with a converted try five minutes later. Leon Lloyd was stopped five metres out, but won a penalty. Healey tapped and went quickly, then fed Martin Johnson who crashed through Perry and over the line. Referee Steve Lander referred the decision to the television match official, seemingly not because there was any doubt about the try, but simply because this was the first club rugby match to employ a fourth official.
If Tim Stimpson's three missed first half penalty kicks for Leicester meant anything, it was that his forwards emerged from half-time with stiffened resolve. Leicester played the game where and how they wanted, their minds firmly on victory rather than any ambition to entertain the 33,500 spectators. Traditional Leicester driving play - the stuff that made Richards' reputation - was the order of the day.
Stimpson was on target with a penalty shortly after the break, then Geordan Murphy was pulled down just short of the line and Bath were penalised again. Healey was over for the score before Bath knew about it. Stimpson converted and, with the job effectively done at 17-3, the Tigers set about closing the game down.
Bath were forced to play catch up rugby, made all the more difficult by their lack of possession. Leicester simply ran down the clock, emptied the bench of replacements and played within themselves. Winston Stanley completed their third try, made by Lloyd, on 66 minutes.
A consolation try by Rob Thirlby, on for the injured Iain Balshaw, was all Bath had to show by the end; too little, too late. They knew they were well beaten by gritty, unforgiving Leicester Tigers.
Unsure of where the Championship play-off competition fitted, having already been crowned English Premiership Champions, Dean Richards sought reassurance of his team's achievement. "We are the English rugby champions now, aren't we?" he begged. "Somebody tell me we are. We've won it twice so we must be."
A week later they were Champions of Europe too.
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