Inside the Tigers’ Den - A night of history making for Leicester
Munster have only lost at home in Europe five times in their impressive history, on Saturday Leicester Tigers became the only side to inflict two of those loses on them at a truly marvellous red stained Thomond Park.
The last time Leicester won at Thomond Park was back in 2007 when they toppled the Irish giants 13-6, on their way to the final which they lost 25-9 to Wasps.
This was another monumental win for Leicester, in terms of the record books and in terms of their European ambitions this season.
With three time back-to-back champions Toulon having lost to Wasps last month and last year’s beaten finalists Clermont losing to Exeter Chiefs on Saturday, just Leicester and Saracens are unbeaten in the competition now.
Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill has quite rightly tried to anchor the expectations of the legions of fans after the 31-19 triumph but Tigers have well and truly thrown their hat into the ring. That said Munster dominated proceedings for much of the match in Limerick.
However the only areas where Leicester enjoyed better team statics were key to winning any rugby match.
Leicester had a better kicking success rate, 86 per cent compared to 50 per cent from the hosts, thanks to the accurate boots of first Owen Williams, whose haul include a penalty from the half way mark, and then Tommy Belly who scored two important penalties to put the game beyond reach for the hosts and deny them a losing bonus point. It was the first time Munster have ever not scored at least one league point from a home match in Europe.
This Munster side may not be of the same vintage of their side a decade ago but they still sit third in the Guinness Pro 12 and are a side not to be taken lightly.
The other area Tigers dominated was the lineout, which has been malfunctioning in recent weeks. But not on Saturday where the hookers had 100 per cent success rate. To be fair Munster only got one throw wrong but that resulted in a try for the truly mammoth Mike Fitzgerald. The kiwi second rower has been incredible since joining the club in the summer.
Munster battered the Tigers with their big running back row but Leicester’s athletic pack chopped them down time after time.
Fitzgerald made 15 tackles, while his second row partner Graham Kitchener made 16, only beaten by the remarkable Tom Youngs with 17.
In comparison no one in the Munster team got into double figures however that has as much to do with the fact that they had 62 per cent of the possession.
But from Leicester it was a lesson in being critical.
Cockerill said: “When the moments came, we managed to take them.
“This is a place not many teams come to and win, especially in Europe, and I’m delighted for the team.
“Munster are a good side, they played well, and our players made their own history tonight. It was a performance full of character.
“The game ebbed and flowed, as it will when you’re against good sides, but we played some decent stuff. We learned some lessons at Worcester last week. We got the result there, but we were a shadow of the side we want to be. We got it right today - the attitude, physicality and tactics.”
There were some exceptional performances from Leicester. Outside of the pack, who were excellent, it was a remarkable night for scrum half Ben Youngs.
He seems to have raised his game since the arrival of head coach Aaron Mauger. Maybe it’s the new attacking style of play which is creating holes for him to attack with his sniping runs, maybe it’s having a dedicated scrum half coach for the first time in Scott Hansen or perhaps it’s having the likes of Sam Harrison breathing down his neck for the number nine jersey. Whatever it is it’s working.
His try in the second half, after outstanding work from Seremaia Bai who chipped the ball over and then won an instant turn over, was a thing of beauty. With the red defence is disarray he scampered around flanker Robin Copeland and then but on the afterburners to speed through the covering Munster men.
Fijian winger Verniki Goneva had been quiet early on, and has generally been overshadowed this season by Tongan hot-stepper Telusa Veainu. Veainu by the way may just have the best step the club has ever seen, and this is a club which has seen the likes of the legendary sevens expert Waisale Serevi pull on the green, red and white jersey.
However Goneva came into his own with a moment of magic on Saturday, leaving Ian Keatley clutching at air after deadlegging him and then speeding down the wing to score in the corner before the two cover tacklers could bundle him into touch.
The try was scored by the winger but it stemmed from an unbelievable maul from a lineout by Leicester’s pack. After gathering the ball on the 22 metre line Tigers formed the maul, and rather than slowly trudging their way painfully down-field they took off at a rate of knots, redirecting the point of attack whenever Munster threatened to halt it, spitting red shirts out the back line a combine flings corn. In the end the hosts brought it down by illegal means a metre a short of the line and with the advantage Youngs threw a speculative pass wide which Goneva cashed in on.
Cockerill said: “Niki’s finish was outstanding. He was in a tight spot and it was a really good finish.”
“We knew they would come and throw everything at us at the start of the second half and they did get it to within four points. But credit to our lads, they found a way to win.
“The tidal wave came against us and we conceded eight points very quickly at the start of the second half and lost a player to the bin [Marcos Ayerza for a late tackle]. But we managed to get a foothold in the game again, defended well and Ben’s try was probably the defining moment. He has a natural ability to spot space and he was quick enough to finish it off.”
The victory sets up a huge night of European rugby at Welford Road on Sunday where Leicester could effectively qualify for the quarter-finals with a bonus point victory. It’s going to be the hottest ticket in town even with Leicester City fighting to stay at the top of the Barclays Premiership.