Leicester Tigers were given a reminder that if they want to return to the pinnacle of English club rugby they will have to earn every inch of it.
Tigers travelled to Bath with near to their strongest side but a spirited home team, which is being dismantled next season, put in a spirited display to snatch a 27-26 win with a try in the 73rd minute.
If Leicester hope to go one better than the last two years and take home the Aviva Premiership crown Saturday’s loss will have to be their last of the season. Tigers have secured their place in the play-offs but will now need to beat London Irish at Welford Road on May 4 to book a home semi-final with Northampton the likely visitors.
Tigers scored two beautiful tries through their England internationals Tom Croft and Ben Youngs against Bath. Croft hit through a hole in the Bath defence at full tilt before gracefully stepping full back Ollie Devoto.
Ben Youngs had a strong game and was at his sharp and sniping best, defined by his audacious 80 metre solo try in the first half which caught the whole Bath side napping.
However Leicester’s normally stingy defence conceded four tries, one from an interception.
But what will worry Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill is the nature his side’s defeat. Tigers were out-muscled by a physical Bath performance. What’s more his side were in a winning position in the clutch period of the game but week tackling, most notably from replacement hooker Rob Hawkins, allowed Francois Louw to power in and steal the win.
The error from Hawkins highlights the importance of England hooker Tom Youngs to the side. Youngs capped his transformation from third choice hooker at the club to a potential British Lions player this week when he collected the Players’ Player of the Year award after topping the votes of his colleagues.
The 26-year-old centre convert beat Niall Morris and Ed Slater who made the short list for the Players’ Player vote.
Prop Fraser Balmain, 21, picked up the Players’ Young Player award, with Graham Kitchener and Sam Harrison the other nominations.
Back at Welford Road on Sunday 16,500 fans turned out to celebrate the club’s glorious recent history at a legends match.
Martin Johnson led out a team of Tigers Legends which included Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, and Tim Stimpson against World Cup winner Jason Robinson’s International Legends to raise money for the Matt Hampson Foundation and Louis Deacon’s Benefit Year.
In a remarkable indictment about the health of the club the gate for Sunday’s game, which was won 41-19 by the international XV, was watched by the largest rugby crowd in England this weekend.
Leicester’s first team will get an extra weekend to recover next week with the European Cup semi-finals being contended before British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatlin names his 37 man touring party for Australia.
Leicester’s potential touring contingent of: Toby Flood, Geoff Parling, Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole, Croft and the two Youngs brothers will have to hope they have already done enough to earn a place on the plane.
In other news
In a baffling move Argentine international winger Gonzalo Camacho will be playing his rugby in Tigers colours next season.
The move for the 28-year-old Exeter Chiefs flyer will come as a surprise to many after the club let 2012 Player of the Year Horacio Agulla, who gathered a cross field kick to score his 11th try of the season for Bath on Saturday, leave because Leicester felt we would miss too much of the season playing for Argentina in The Rugby Championship.
However the 5ft 10in Camacho, who has made 20 appearances for his country, is in strong contention to be involved in the newly formed Rugby Championship which would see him and prop Marco Ayerza not join up with the Tigers until early October.
Also this week veteran hooker George Chuter, 36, signed a one year contract extension to stay at the club. Chuter, who has been at the club since 2001, looked certain to leave earlier in the season with the signing of London Welsh hooker Neil Briggs.
But with fourth-choice hooker Jimmy Stevens opting to leave for London Irish rather than sign a new deal at Leicester, Cockerill offered Chuter the chance to add a 14th year to his time at the club at a player/mentor.