Leicester Tigers 24-13 Bath Rugby, Welford Road
Hare steers Tigers past Bath
September 12, 1987
Les Cusworth played a key role in dispatching Bath
© Getty Images
Structured league rugby union in England took its first, tentative steps on September 12 1987, with the top two club teams of the previous decade, Leicester and Bath, meeting on the opening day. They conspired to produce a thrilling curtain raiser for a large crowd of 5,000 at Welford Road.
"It was hard, skilful, and entertaining, exactly what is needed to produce better players for the national side," reported The Times.
The first full Saturday of league fixtures caused excitement from top to bottom, maybe more so for smaller clubs who could now see a structured route to success. There was enthusiasm everywhere, but also a degree of scepticism, not least in Gloucester, where the programme noted, "We shall just have to see how it all turns out. Of course, leagues have proved very popular in Scotland, but then - so has haggis."
Leicester had undertaken a three week tour to Australasia so were in fine fettle to welcome a Bath team including 13 current or future international players. Such pre-season preparation was rare in the amateur era, and partly countered by the omission from this match of star No.8 Dean Richards, who had just returned from holiday in Canada. Though Leicester lined up with fewer household names than Bath, fly-half Les Cusworth was at the peak of his powers of controlling games, with former England men Paul Dodge and Dusty Hare behind him.
Such was the commitment of the packs, and the ferocity of their combat, that it was likened to French club rugby. Injuries were inevitable and both teams used the two replacements permitted.
Hare kicked three penalties in the first half, though he was to miss three more later, as well as all three conversions. Bath, however, did not have a single kickable penalty; the five awarded them were all beyond the range of Stuart Barnes.
The Tigers' first half try came from a tapped penalty. Inspired by Hare, it went through five pairs of hands before Dexter scored. Bath's play was not so refined, the half-back link between Richard Hill and Barnes below its best and the forwards struggling to put moves together. Though Damian Cronin won some quality lineout ball, it mostly came to nothing and only once were Bath able to launch a successful back row move, when John Hall shook off some mediocre tackles to charge over for a try. Barnes' conversion attempt hit the post.
After turning round at 13-7 down, Bath drew level quickly after half-time with a Barnes try when Hare was caught in possession near his own line. The visitors might have been expected to grind out a win from that position, but they lost their rhythm and their tempers as Leicester, and Cusworth in particular, took the upper hand. Punches were thrown and firebrand hooker Graham Dawe was reprimanded for stamping on Rob Tebbutt, an offence that might have earned him dismissal on another day.
All the while, Cusworth pulled the strings for Leicester, keeping play in Bath's half of the field. His was a comfortable ride, behind a pack in which hooker Harry Roberts stood out and the back row thrived despite Richards' absence. Tebbutt, Povoas and Wells had the better of their opposite numbers Hall, Dave Egerton and Andy Robinson, though it was the Bath men who went on to international recognition. Robinson's replacement by Trevor Harris, a prop by trade, further disrupted Bath.
When the opportunity came, Cusworth darted towards the corner and a battery of Bath defenders. Barry Evans came inside to take the pass, Cusworth shaped to pass but held on, his dummy fooling tacklers and spectators alike as he dived in at the corner.
Minutes later, it was Cusworth again who chipped ahead for replacement left wing Jez Harris to barge his way over in the corner. That Hare missed the conversions mattered little, so superior was Cusworth's conjuring. His final trick was a dropped goal, floated in on the breeze to cap a wonderful afternoon for the home team.
Leicester finished top of the league in 1987-88, despite playing only ten of their 11 scheduled matches. In their wake were Wasps, Harlequins, Bath and Gloucester. Apart from Harlequins' one season in the second tier, those five clubs alone have been constants in the top flight. The six clubs below them have faded, to varying degrees; Orrell, Moseley, Nottingham, Bristol, Waterloo and Coventry. Propping them all up, with 11 points from 11 games because a defeat was deemed worthy of a point, was Sale.
Leicester: W Hare; B Evans, P Dodge, I Bates, C Dexter (rep: J Harris); L Cusworth, S Kenney; S Redfern, H Roberts, W Richardson, J Wells, P Mann, T Smith, R Tebbutt (rep: A Marriott), S Povoas.
Bath: C Martin; D Trick, J Palmer, S Halliday (rep: A Lumsden), A Swift; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, R Lee, J Hall, J Morrison, D Cronin, A Robinson (rep: T Harris), D Egerton.
Scores: Leicester: Tries: Dexter, Cusworth, Harris. Penalties: Hare (3). Dropped goal: Cusworth. Bath Tries: Hall, Barnes. Conversion: Barnes. Dropped goal: Barnes. Referee: F Howard (Liverpool).
Dusty Hare wings the ball out for Leicester © PA Photos
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd