Leicester Tigers battled to a potentially season defining win in blizzard conditions in front of a fiery Sandy Park crowd against the Exeter Chiefs on Saturday.
In one of the ugliest wins you will ever watch, Leicester faltered to a 12-9 win on a cold and bitter day that saw much of the sporting calendar called off.
All the points coming from the boot of Toby Flood. But with Harlequins losing to Saracens by 27-12 yesterday (Sunday) the victory takes them into the all important second spot and a home semi-final as things stand.
Leicester only just escaped with the win and even Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill conceded that it should have been a draw. With just a minute left on the clock Tigers conceded a penalty just inside their own half and Exeter’s Irish fly-half Gareth Steenson stepped up to the mark and sailed his kick right down the centre of the sticks but rather than breaking the visiting supporters’ hearts his mighty effort feel less than a metre short into the thankful arms of Tom Croft.
Leicester should have been well clear by that point in the game but butchered a prime opportunity to score the a try. Tuilagi found a hole and unselfishly passed to Matthew Tait, who more selfishly went for the line, getting tackled short, rather than passing to one of the numerous players outside him on the overlap.
With the Six Nations complete all the talk in the past week has been who will win a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia this summer bit it was Wallaby Julian Salvi who put on a star showing at Sandy Park. His energetic display, albeit in the absence of Exeter’s first choice back-row pairing Tom Johnson and James Scaysbrook, went a long way to tipping the balance in favour to the visitors.
Ed Slater had another storming afternoon which only builds his growing reputation and should enhance his chance of touring Argentina with England. His second row partner Geoff Parling also had another industrious afternoon, making tackle after tackle in the high tempo match and stealing line out ball.
While Flood did everything required of him in his first outing as captain it was scrum half Ben Youngs who really took control of the match when the game was in the balance. His accurate box-kicking kept Exeter at bay and kept Tigers down in enemy territory when the pressure was building.
Ultimately, as so often is the case with Leicester, it was a win built on the side’s scrum power, winning penalties for Flood to kick. However Leicester will desperately have to improve if they are to win one the biggest games in their season, the East Midlands ‘El Classico,’ against Northampton Saints.
Northampton come into the fixture having won an enthralling match against London Wasps earlier on Saturday. Snatching the tie in the 81st minute with a driving maul which was simply unstoppable all afternoon and responsible for three of their tries.
With all the sides back to full strength thanks to their returning internationals Leicester will really have to step up a couple of levels to avoid a humiliation in the derby. Most importantly Cockerill needs to find a way to get his superstar centre Manu Tuilagi back into some form. His power, when at his best, will be needed not only to beat Saints but also Toulon in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in two weeks time.
In other news
Cockerill has denied that the club have been in contact with Biarritz’s Namibian prop Wicus Blaauw who is rumoured to be a summer target with 95 time Italian international Martin Castrogiovanni likely to be leaving at the end of the season. If he does leave Leicester hope it will be with another two winner’s medals with the side still going strong in the league and European cup.
One man who will not be involved with the run in to the end of the season will be Louis Deacon. The 32-year-old second-row had surgery on his injured shoulder on Monday and will be out for the rest of the season.