Inside the Tigers’ Den - Ford comes back to punish Tigers
On paper the result was not a massive improvement on last time, in practice it was a highly improved performance which perfectly summed up the short comings of the team this season.
The Leicester Tigers will not compete for the Aviva Premiership title this season after they were soundly beaten by a special Bath team 47-10 in the play-off semi-final on Saturday.
Instead the West Country side will face Saracens at Twickenham on Saturday after the Londoners put on a world-class display of powerful rugby to blow Northampton off their own pitch 29-24 at Franklin’s Gardens.
Leicester travelled to Bath knowing their task was going to be difficult, in September their season had been sent off the rails when they were beaten by a stunning 45-0 at the Rec.
The result, so comprehensive and so resounding, sent the club into a spiral of chaos. Many of the fans turned on the coaching staff and as such Paul Burke left the club not soon after.
However Tigers did best Bath the last time the two sides met, at fortress Welford Road, whose walls are being rebuilt brick by brick. There is still some work to be done.
So when Leicester walked out into a crescendo of noise at the Rec the previous humiliation on this ground eight months earlier could either have damaged them physiologically or given them the type of motivation and incentive they needed to compete with one of the most dangerous attacking sides in recent memory. It truth both scenarios seemed to come true.
Leicester simply never got to grips with Bath’s attacking formation - in their defence few have this year. Their diamond attacking formation, which provides Tigers’ ex-fly-halve George Ford with three or four options off first phase attack, simply bamboozled the Leicester defence, made up of players not really suited to match the agile Bath attack.
It took just over a minute for Bath winger Matt Banahan to score the first of his hat-trick of tries. Quite simply every time Bath attacked they scored, so devastating were their attacking lines. Anthony Watson and Kyle Eastmond, Peter Stringer and Ford all joined him as try scorers.
Every statistic other than the score tells a completely different story however. Leicester had 65 per cent of the possession and 71 per cent of the territory but, as has been the case all year, they could not convert it into points. One penalty kick from five was indicative of Leicester’s inability to score.
Tom Youngs did score but at that point Bath were temporarily down to 13 players.
Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “I told the lads they’ve nothing to be ashamed off. I think we worked really hard, and there’s a lot of quality players still missing out of that side.”
“I think maybe if you have them in the 23 maybe you would come to a place like this and compete a little bit better.”
Of course Cockerill is not wrong, his side were missing Anthony Allen, Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Miles Benjamin, Gonzalo Camacho and Logo Mulipola amongst others.
He added: “I’ve got nothing but praise for the players as they’ve worked so hard off the field, and it’s been a tough year all round.
“We will regroup over the summer and come back from third position. There’s no disgrace in the result today and I think it was a lot closer than the scoreboard suggests.
“But Bath are a good side, very dangerous, and we got punished on the counter-attack - and rightly so as they deserve to be in the final.”
Leicester fans have long been lamenting the drain of talent out of Welford Road in recent seasons, a drain with continues with the likes of Julian Salvi and Geoff Parling joining their former team mate and the Aviva Premiership top try-scorer for 2014/15 Thomas Waldrom down at Exeter. However of all the players to leave Aviva Premiership player of year Ford is the one that really got away.
There was never any doubting his talent. You don’t win the IRB Junior Young Player of the Year award by accident. But he just didn’t get the game time a man of his ambition wanted. Instead he was made to play the apprentice behind then England fly-half Toby Flood. There is nothing radical about that - Flood was playing for his country and an experienced leader in the team.
However for all his qualities Flood was never going to be the best player in the world, and Ford is pretty close to winning that accolade right now.
If he can take Bath to the title next week and lead England to glory, or at least into the semi-finals of the World Cup, then he has to be a contender for the award. Just to rub dirt in the wound Flood left for France a year later, leaving the Tigers devoid of both experience and world class potential at fly half.
Of course whether Ford would have flourished the same at Leicester is hard to say, with his dad at director of rugby he has had a team largely built around him at Bath - full of intelligent, agile, attacking rugby players.
The day after the final an England XV will play the Barbarians in their annual match.
Tigers lock Ed Slater and back Matthew Tait have been called up to represent England in the uncapped match.
Slater looks likely to scrum down alongside Wasps’ Joe Launchbury as the two players are given an extra match to get more game time and showcase themselves after making remarkably similar comebacks from long injury lay-offs.
They will be playing against a man Slater knows pretty well having played together for the last year as New Zealand World Cup winner Brad Thorn will join up with the Barbarians before he retires from rugby at the age of 40.
Tait was not included in England head coach Stuart Lancaster’s 50-man squad to prepare for the Rugby World Cup in September but his performances for Leicester, which has seen him as the standout performer in the Tigers’ backs, has earned him a call-up. A small positive for Tigers fans is that Tait’s move to French Top 14 side Bayonne could be off after they were relegated on Saturday.