For all the occasions that sports commentators use hyperbole to describe moments of individual drama, probably less than 1% are truly accurate. However, the game just completed in the English Aviva Premiership contained one of those moments.
Although this season we have already seen the forty phase movement which allowed Ronan O’Gara to maintain Munster’s interest in the Heineken Cup, Geordan Murphy’s drop goal to give his beloved Leicester a win against champions Saracens in this important game was career defining – but not for Murphy.
Leicester are the perennial strength of English rugby who have a notoriously bad record in seasons in which the World Cup is played. This season has been no different. They started their badly with players representing five countries (England, Ireland, Italy, Argentina and Samoa) on World Cup duty and fell to a lowly twelfth in the Premiership by the end of November. As the game commenced today the club were back up to sixth but well behind second-placed Saracens and in danger of falling back into the pack. Missing out on the end of season play-offs and the lucrative home semi-final slot that is reward for finishing in the top two of the table were real possibilities.
With ten minutes of the match remaining in wherever it is that Sarries call home these days, Leicester were up 16-17 and Murphy was leading his team in the true manner of a captain. Exemplary fielding and tackling and occasional forays into a fairly moribund backline were key elements of his contribution. Five minutes left on the clock, and Leicester won a ball in mid-field in open play: Flood targeted the touchline in the Sarries 22 with a reasonable grubber kick. The kick didn’t make it, being well rescued by Saracens full-back Goode who returned it with interest into the Leicester 22 from whence Argentine winger Ayerza could only scramble the ball to touch on the Leicester 10 metre line.
Saracens won the resulting line-out but were awarded a rather lucky penalty when Leicester prevented a maul by tackling the catcher to the ground. The penalty was kicked and now Leicester were two points in arrears.
During the following two minutes Saracens seemed to have the game in their grasp as they attacked the Leicester line but Manu Tualagi, returning after injury and other tribulations, burst out of his 22 in possession and made forty metres before realising that he had no support. With time almost up, he grubbered ahead to the Saracens 10m line where the ball was kicked out for a Leicester throw.
There was now only thirteen seconds left on the official match clock but referee Rose allowed Leicester to throw in and they duly regained possession. Going through twenty-odd phases, largely through their forwards, they brought the pill up to the Saracens 22 metre line and in front of the posts. Young scrum half Grindley appeared to have butchered a chance of the clinching drop-goal by having a go himself. But the Mole was intent on the actions and attitude of English out-half Toby Flood.
In circumstances where O’Gara, Sexton, Steven Donald or even Dan Parks would have been screaming for the scrum-half’s pass, Tobes was hiding. To make matters worse for him, Barnes was calling the drop-goal pretty much every other phase. Twice it appeared that he wanted another flat pass to give his back-line another go. At last on the twenty-second phase, with his pack now a mere 15m from the opposing line, he appeared to call for the pass straight behind his pack and Grindley found him, albeit with four Saracens players chasing the pass to prevent the vital kick.
Flood got possession, but crucially glanced up – as if the posts might have been moved – and the chance was gone. He manfully carried into the tackle and his forward support regained possession, now on the twenty-third phase of the possession.
Enter Captain Murphy, Geordon the light fantastic. Maybe he’s not renowned in his native country for his drop-goals, but he has a rugby brain the equal of every one of his international colleagues. Keenly aware that his club’s season was on the line, Murphy verbally guided his young scrum-half through the next three phases of possession until he judged that the position was not going to be further improved and then he screamed for the pass, which came, was caught and, without looking up, despatched over the bar with the trajectory of a badly topped five iron. Very badly topped.
Murphy the man. Flood the plain!
If English Coach Lancaster and Lions coach-in-waiting Gatland were watching, Tobes may not just have ensured his holiday plans for the rest of the year, he may also have guaranteed that he will not be taking in Australia during the summer of 2013. Rarely are there clear-cut opportunities to demonstrate, in a club game, that you have the bottle for key decision making at the top level. This was one of them and Toby handed it back.