Inside the Tigers’ Den - A European victory to savour
It’s seven years since Leicester’s last European semi-final but the wait is over.
The Tigers beat Stade Francais 41-13 at Welford Road on Sunday to secure a place in the last four, and they did it in some style.
Leicester looked like a side who meant business, a side on the same wavelength and they took the lead in just the third minute of the match with a brilliant piece of quick thinking from Freddie Burns.
The ball was kicked into the corner and Stade Francais were forced to carry it out. Burns was first on the scene for Leicester and took the ball quickly to throw a quick line out straight into the arms of Manu Tuilagi who marched over the line untouched.
Stade fly-half Morne Steyn was having an off day with the boot. Having missed every kick in the warm up he struck the post with his first effort, but it deflected in, but his second hit the opposite upright and off the wrong side. It was a let off for Tigers who were getting on the wrong side of referee Nigel Owens early on.
Leicester were playing physically in defence, with scrum half Ben Youngs of all people leading the way, and they were pushing the Parisian side backwards but penalties, particularly from flanker Brendon O’Connor were costing the hosts.
It took another 27 minutes for Tigers to strike again through Vereniki Goneva. The Fijian winger beat a couple of defenders after former Tigers number nine Julian Dupuy failed to find touch with a box kick and then a couple of phases later Peter Betham drew in three players and played in Goneva to score.
Just three minutes later and Stade self destructed - Steyn threw a predictable inside pass trying to find his big strike runners and Burns read the play like he had a script, intercepting and racing in to score under the posts, with time to celebrate with a couple of fist pumps on his way to the line.
Stade struck back a couple of minutes after the break when Dupuy dummied his way over the line but all their momentum was halted two minutes later when Goneva went over for his second of the match after Ben Youngs attacked down the blindside and fed his winger.
Youngs had a torrid game against Gloucester a week earlier, taking far too long to play the ball at the back of rucks and looking hesitant in his decision making. But on Sunday he looked more like the scrum half who so impressed for England during the Six Nations.
Meanwhile Betham, who was man of the match last weekend in the win against Gloucester, is getting better with every match at outside centre. On Sunday he was creative in attack and thunderous in defence, using his explosive speed to create power in the tackles.
Leicester’s fifth try of the afternoon was a perfect team score. Mat Tait made good yards running back a poor kick and then Telusa Veainu and O’Connor took the ball on. Marcos Ayerza kept the ball alive with some soft hands before Betham spread the ball wide to put Goneva into space. With the winger on a hat-trick he would have been forgiven for going for the line but in a sign of good team spirit he shipped it wide for the excellent Mike Fitzgerald to touch down in the corner.
Veainu finished the show with a move he started. After breaking through the middle of the defence he finished with deadly accuracy a could of phases later.
Veainu has been arguably the signing of the season in the Aviva Premiership this season. At the start of the year he didn’t have a club, he’s now recognised as one of the most deadly attackers in the world, certainly in the Northern hemisphere club game.
It was just the 141 metres gained from seven runs, four clean breaks and 10 defenders beaten against Stade.
It still wasn’t good enough for Man of the Match though, that was won quite correctly by Betham.
Stade qualified for the quarter-finals as a group runner up and in truth they looked like one of the lowest placed side in the last eight.
Having only won one away game all season, and sitting 12th in the French Top 14, this is not a vintage Stade side, but a Tigers dispatched them with relative ease.
They will take on Dan Carter’s Racing 92 at The City Stadium in Nottingham on April 24, after the French side beat Toulon 19-16.
The other semi-final will be contested between Wasps and Saracens making it a fine weekend all round for English rugby.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill is confident is his side can get to the final in Lyon on May 14.
He said: “We know we can beat them if we get it right. And if we get to a final that’s a one-off game and we can back ourselves against anyone.
“When we get it right we know we can beat anybody, so we’ve just got to get it right as often as we can. The standard definitely cranks up again for that game, but I think we’ve got a good side as well.
“We’ve got good players and players to match their players. Racing are a different prospect to what we played today probably, but we’ll just keep working and doing what we’re doing.
“I think we can match the top French sides on our day, but the strength of their squads is something else.”
Next up for Leicester is just the small matter of a must win derby away at Northampton Saints on Saturday.