Leicester are the big game in the Premiership, never mind Tuesday's events at Twickenham, and the Tigers confirmed with a bonus point victory over Worcester that they have recovered from a torrid start to the season.
While they will go into the new year outside the top four, having made the last seven play-off finals, on Sunday they welcome the team immediately above them, Sale.
Though Harlequins and Saracens have set the pace, Leicester have found their stride after losing five of their first six Premiership matches. Their last defeat in the league came on the day England were knocked out of the World Cup back in October and it effectively took them only six minutes to put this game beyond Worcester's reach.
The Warriors had, before the game at least, one of the meanest defences in the Premiership but they also possessed the bluntest attack. So when their midfield defence parted on three minutes to allow Toby Flood to dummy his way into space and free Matt Smith outside him, the outcome had a weary air of inevitability.
Worcester were shocking at the start, so passive in defence that they were forced to concede numerous penalties at the breakdown; when Joe Carlisle went off his feet near halfway, Flood made it 10-0. The England fly-half, playing in the Premiership for the first time since Jonny Wilkinson announced his retirement from Test rugby, played with a swagger but put boot to ball when he needed to.
There were times last season with England when Flood seemed to be playing fantasy rugby rather than reacting to what was happening around him, but he tormented Worcester by allowing circumstance to dictate. He made it 17-0 on 22 minutes by spotting Tevita Taumoepeau in front of him and correctly calculated that the prop had not received tackling lessons for Christmas.
It was too easy for Leicester who were dominant in all areas. They became sloppy and it was 40 minutes before they scored another try. The Warriors finished the half with 14 men after the No8 Chris Jones saw yellow for manhandling Ben Woods at a lineout and Flood's subsequent penalty made it 20-3 to the Tigers at the break.
Worcester became more focused with a one-man disadvantage. Carlisle kicked one penalty and missed another before Jones marked his return to the field by bursting over the gain-line and, when the Warriors moved the ball right, Alex Grove timed his pass to Marcel Garvey to give the wing the space to score in the right-hand corner.
The try stoked Leicester. Tom Croft showed the pace of a wing but not the finishing prowess when he lost control of the ball at the moment he tried to touch it down, but Worcester were unable get out of their own territory and the Tigers indulged in picking and going, keeping the ball and making ground before Louis Deacon forced his way over.
Deacon was to go off with a hamstring strain, a few minutes after Manu Tuilagi had been taken into the treatment room with the same problem. Tuilagi is the more likely of the two to be named in the England squad next month, but Leicester will not know the extent of either injury until Thursday.
Tuilagi had played a bit-part role despite the possession his side enjoyed. Leicester miss the distributive quality of Anthony Allen at inside-centre but they did not need subtle touches to subdue Worcester and secured their bonus point at the end when, with the Warriors again a man light after Oliver Tomaszczyk was sent to the sin-bin for whacking Julian Salvi, Horacio Agulla caught his own chip.
"The World Cup was hard for us," said the Leicester director of rugby, Richard Cockerill. "We had to take our medicine but everything is up for grabs now and I hope Harlequins, who are going so well, find the majority of their team picked by England in the Six Nations."
Worcester Pennell (capt); Garvey, Grove (Fatiaki, 66), Rasmussen, Benjamin; Carlisle (Goode, 66), Perry (Arr, 51); Mullan, Shervington (Lutui, 60), Taumoepeau (Tomaszczyk, 66), Percival, Gillies, Betty (Douglas, 79), Abbott (Kvesic, 60), Jones.
Try Garvey Con Carlisle Pens Carlisle 2
Sin-bin Jones 39, Tomaszczyk 79
Leicester Hamilton; Agulla, M Tuilagi (Morris, 74), Twelvetrees, Smith; Flood, Youngs; Stankovich (Castrogiovanni, 51), Chuter, Cole, Deacon (capt; Mafi, 77), Slater, Croft, Woods (Salvi, 60), Waldrom.
Tries Smith, Flood, Deacon, Agulla Cons Flood 3 Pens Flood 2
Referee JP Doyle (London). Attendance 12,024.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Uncle Saiful
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