Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester advance but come back down to earth
Well after all that Leicester are going to have to do it all again, that is play defending Top 14 champions Stade Francais.
On Sunday Tigers came thoroughly second best to Stade, losing 36-21.
It was always going to be a tough game for Leicester, they knew before kick-off they already had a home quarter-final in the bag after a stunning start to their campaign in the Champions Cup.
In stark contrast Stade Francais were scrapping for their European lives, with the knowledge a bonus point win would secure them a place in the last eight.
Richard Cockerill named his strongest side for the tie in a sign the English club were taking the job seriously, stating before the match that he wanted to win to let this emerging and developing side know what it feels like to win away in France, after all the final is in Lyon this year. Now if that’s not confidence in what the club can achieve this season I don’t know what is.
And Leicester dominated the opening stages of the game, camping themselves in the home side’s half. However it took until the 19th minute for Leicester to break through the stubborn defence after Stade managed to repel Tigers’ many mauls. In the end the try came from broken play. Matt Smith, who arguably would keep his place in the side whether Jean De Villiers was fit or not - so well he is playing, took a deep kick, put up a high kick and then raced through to reclaim the ball. He off-loaded to Mike Fitzgerald who fed Manu Tuilagi. The big centre showed he has got over his groin injury by racing clear of the cover and scored under the posts.
However that was as good as it got for Leicester, who took their foot off Stade’s neck, with Burns missing a pair of penalty kicks.
However four minutes after Tigers scored, the hosts replied with practically their first attack of the game. The exceptional fly-half Jules Plisson ran through a gap left by Marcos Ayerza who was feeling the force of a charging run from French star in the making Jonathan Danty.
Leicester’s big problem all afternoon was they were committing far too many players to turn over the ball in the ruck, allowing the French side to find space out wide after quickly transferring it from side to side and off-loading dangerously.
One such attack let Waisea Nayacalevu Vuidravuwalu in after Matt Smith found himself in no-man’s land with a big overlap on.
To make matters worse Tigers captain Tom Youngs was then shown a soft yellow card for a fracas on the ground. With TV cameras watching every move on a modern rugby pitch it was a foolish thing for the jilted English international to do, but reminiscent of scenes seen, and thought nothing of, on amateur parks all over the world.
Rabah Slimani and Raphael Lakafia scored for Stade to wrap up the much needed bonus point before the Leicester fight-back began.
Tigers’ most dangerous attacking threat this season Telusa Veainu was out of the game for long spells on Sunday, playing out on the wing, but when he did get an inch of space he took it, bursting through to get the Parisians on the back foot. Big lock Dom Barrow finished the move, using his long limbs to just reach out and score.
Then came a moment which could have changed everything. Tigers scored what would have been their try of the season but it was rubbed off correctly for a forward pass in its creation.
Replacement scrum half Sam Harrison played the ball back inside to Veainu who evaded half the Stade backline before Tommy Bell trotted over. Only Harrison’s pass had drifted forward.
A Plisson penalty put the game beyond reach but Tigers scored anyway, Harry Thacker touching down at the bottom of a driving maul. But as Leicester attacked again in the final minute the ball was intercepted and Geoffrey Doumayrou trotted in to finish the job.
After the match Cockerill said: “We’ll learn some lessons from today. To come to France, to a hostile environment, against a good side with a good home record, that is a new experience for some of those younger players and the guys who have come in this season and they will be better for it.
“Stade are a good side, they’re the defending French champions, they played very well and they deserved their victory.
“But I thought we played some really good stuff at times.”
Leicester have largely gone under the radar this European campaign. All the pundits are understandably backing the only undefeated side from the group stages, Saracens, for the title and aside from that French Top 14 side Racing 92, with World Player of the Year Dan Carter at fly-half, for a tip at the title.
But Tigers finished second seeds for the quarter-finals, behind Saracens, by finishing top of Pool Four with five wins.
Unfortunately they were some distance from making it six out of six on Sunday.
In an idiosyncrasy of qualifying they well now meet Stade again, this time at Welford Road.
The other quarter-finals will be competed between: Saracens and Northampton Saints; Racing 92 and Toulon; and Wasps v Exeter Chiefs.
Should Tigers progress they would meet the winner of the all French affair in the semi-final.
It has been a truly stunning year for the Aviva Premiership sides in the Champions Cup with five of the eight teams in the quarter finals from the English league.
Welsh heavyweights Ospreys and last season’s finalists Clermont both had a chance to advance if they had won their final matches and other results had gone their way but were eliminated, with Clermont losing at the Stade Marcel Michelin, a ground which was once the most impregnable fortress in club rugby.
Just Bath from the Aviva Premiership failed to advance and they have looked far from their best this season, and they did have arguably the toughest group of the competition. When Leinster finish bottom of a group you know its been a battle.
Tigers now turn their attention back to the league where they travel to Gloucester on Saturday.