Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester launch heroic comeback
If consistency is the key to success in sport then the Leicester Tigers are some way off achieving it this season.
Tigers did eventually beat Gloucester 35-30 on Saturday, in a pulsating game, which takes them back up to fourth in the Aviva Premiership, filling the final play-off spot with three regular season league games left and the derby against fifth placed Northampton Saints in a week’s time.
For all the ground Leicester’s attack has made this season their defence has gone backwards. At times it was woeful on Saturday.
But Tigers were brilliant in the opening quarter of an hour against Gloucester on Saturday and looked to be in full control. The excellent Telusa Veainu opened the try scoring in just the seventh minute, finishing a flowing move after the outstanding Peter Betham broke the line and then Manu Tuilagi scored the second which was set-up by more inventive play by Australian international Betham, patting the ball back into Tuilagi’s hands from over the touch line. But with Owen Williams unable to convert either try the scores remained close.
Then Leicester lost the plot and waved the waltzing Cherry and Whites attackers through gaping holes in the defence to be staring down the barrel of a 27-13 deficit at the break having conceded three tries in 11 minutes with Steve McColl, Henry Trinder and Paddy McAllister all crossing.
McColl scored untouched after James Hook intercepted the ball from a Betham pass, the one blot on his copy book, and went on a 80 yard dash for the line, passing at the last moment, and Trinder stepped his way past Williams and the despairing dive of Harry Thacker - who once again played well enough to make several national newspaper’s team of the week, to touch down.
Prop McAllister burrowed over from close range.
The Leicester faithful, who have seen their side lose just once at Welford Road in the last 19 games, were not happy and were drowned out by the jubilant Gloucester fans as the sides went down the tunnel to the changing rooms at half time.
Perhaps Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill’s post match comments explained their turn around.
He said: “It was the season for us, we had 40 minutes to keep our season alive so there were some harsh words said at half time.
“But we knew if we got it right, like we did in the first 20 minutes, we could score points and we can win.
“We started really well and then went to pieces defensively. We looked poor and we probably deserved to be 17 points down at half time, we got what we deserved in that first half.
“I don’t think it’s going to be pleasant watching on Monday. We are not going to accept that 20 minutes of that first half because that’s not good enough.
“But credit to the players they worked and toiled and we got ourselves back into a winning position and they deserve a huge amount of credit for that.”
The second half was classic Leicester and classic Tuilagi. He took the bull by the horns six minutes after the break, hitting the line at speed he escaped the tackle Scotland international Greg Laidlaw and then fended off full back Tom Marshall to score. That’s why he has been given a new contract worth half a million pounds a year.
In a sign of the quality of the backs play at times it was a hard thing to split the man of the match award between the impressive Tuilagi, Betham and Veainu - who once again topped the league’s distance gained in attack stats with an incredible 180 metres made.
Betham was next to score, Tuilagi attacked the line, drew a defender and got a gorgeous offload away out the back door to release his centre partner to speed over and secure the bonus point.
Tuilagi, who missed 15 months through injury before returning in January, said: “I am doing all right. I am still on the pitch - that is the main thing! I am just enjoying it, I am enjoying every single minute of it. I’ve been out of the game, and when you are fit and well, sometimes you take it for granted.
“For me, I am enjoying training every day because it is an opportunity to get better. To have the opportunity on the weekend to put it on the playing field is great. I have still got a little bit to go.”
A fifth try was added seven minutes from time when a looping miss-pass from Betham was taken by Vereniki Goneva to score one of the easier tries of his Tigers career, his 40th for Leicester and ninth of the season.
Leicester had to defend manfully in the closing stages as Gloucester battered the line but Betham of all people won the turn over and sparked wild celebrations.
While a lot of praise has fallen upon the shoulders of the scintillating backs there were also some outstanding performances in the forwards.
Second rows Graham Kitchener and Dom Barrows ran themselves to a standstill, the latter particularly impressing with 11 tackles, just one behind flanker Brendon O’Connor who topped the count despite only being a replacement on his return to action after a hamstring injury.
However the performance of the afternoon in the pack game from 19-year-old academy graduate Will Evans who made one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory.
If ever there was a player who looked to the manner born. Evans, who became the second youngest forward to ever play for Leicester, after second row Tom Ryder in 2003, showed composure on the ball, won turnovers and made his tackles - the best a chase back to catch Gloucester after they had made a line break which saw him flip over the tackled man to immediately challenge for the ball.
Cockerill was full of praise. He said: “It was a great performance for a young man coming into the side for his debut in a game we had to win, He’s just turned 19 and we think a lot of him. It was an opportunity for him today. We could have brought Opeti Fonua back in or moved the back row around, but it was an opportunity to see the lad play in this environment. He’s a good player, it was good to blood him.
Some sad news broke last week that injured winger Miles Benjamin has retired after failing to fully recover from his knee injury.
South African second row Sebastian de Chaves will leave the club in the summer to join London Irish. He has played 44 games for the club.
Next up for Leicester is just the small matter of a potentially season defining game against Stade Francais in the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup on Sunday.
Stade are not having a vintage season in the French Top 14, sitting in 12th place.
The Parisian side have won just one away game all season, thrashing Italian whipping boys Treviso in the group stages of the cup competition. Tigers beat them 33-20 at Welford Road in the group stages but were defeated 36-21 in France in the return fixture.