Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester pack humbled at leaders Saracens
Leicester Tigers have a bit of soul searching to do. Every team loses, and very few win at Saracens’s Allianz Park, just three teams have since they moved in.
But the way Saracens bullied the Leicester pack physically will leave a psychological found far deeper than it takes for the bumps and bruises to clear up and there were plenty of those.
Saracens scored four tries to none in the 26-6 victory, three by way of referee Greg Garner who trice ran under the posts to raise his hand for penalty tries.
Leicester fans cannot grumble, not too long ago their top scorer for much of the season was P - penalty try. The question should rather be asked why their scrum, historically one of the most powerful and fearsome in world club rugby, couldn’t compete.
Mako Vunipola has really learned the dark arts of scrummaging to add to his impressive open field game.
Fraser Balmain, playing on his favoured tight head side, was all set to make his break though with England having played in uncapped matches against the Barbarians. Jones might be re-thinking that as he and the world’s best loose head Marcos Ayerza, flanking lightweight Harry Thacker at hooker - who was excellent around the park incidentally - struggled to resist the drive of the mighty Sarries pack, with Petrus du Plessis excelling at tight head and George Kruis and up and coming lock star Maro Itoje applying the power from the second row.
Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “Sarries upped the ante and we couldn’t cope physically, it’s as simple as that.”
“If you can’t cope with the physicality of this league then you get beaten. If you can’t compete at source with and without the ball you’re not going to get anywhere. We lost today and we’ve lost badly but we have to show some character.”
It was a curious team selection from Leicester’s management, leaving three British and Irish Lions: Dan Cole, Tom and Ben Youngs on the bench, instead choosing to play the less experienced Balmain, Thacker and Sam Harrison.
Cockerill and co appeared to give a nod to some of their second string guys, with the young Dom Barrow partnering Graham Kitchener in the second row and Seremai Bai in the centres with the impressive Mike Fitzgerald on the bench covering lock and backrow and Owen Williams fly half and centre.
The exceptional new openside Brendon O’Connor, who is being tipped as a wildcard selection for Jones’ first England squad, was rested all together.
Perhaps the idea was for the starters to try and keep Saracens within arms reach before unleashing their stars on a tired side in the second half. The plan half worked, Leicester only went in trailing 7-6 at the break after Freddie Burns kicked a pair of penalties.
However the nature of Saracens’ first try was ominous. A well executed catch and drive line out saw the hosts’ 13-man maul heading towards the line before the referee lost patience. Centre Marcelo Bosch dotted down the ball just for good measure. Leicester’s body position was all wrong as they looked to disturb the ball at the back of the maul rather than halt the drive at source.
It didn’t get any better after the break. First replacement hooker Jamie George went over the line at the back of another perfectly formed driving maul, and then the Saracens pack earned a pair of penalty tries as even the introduction of England international Cole and Samoan international Logovi’i Mulipola could not halt the Aviva Premiership league leader’s momentum.
“We back our team selection and I am not going to make any excuses,” Cockerill said.
“We know it’s a very attritional season and a lot of games have battle through the games with Munster.”
“Last week we rested guys and we always planned to rotate and trust the squad, which we did. Those people take their opportunities or they don’t, and that’s how you find out about players.
Leicester’s efforts was partially derailed on Saturday by the lose of both of their starting flankers. Tom Croft left the field to get stitched up looking like something from a horror film as the blood flowed freely and the unluckiest man in English rugby Ed Slater - “tweaked” his knee ligaments, which means he is out for six to eight weeks, missing at least half of the up-coming Six Nations, and perhaps altogether.
The match on Saturday was incidentally watched by the new national team forwards coach Steve Borthwick.
Cockerill added: “Saracens were very good and we were very poor. Our set piece was substandard and I am disappointed in what we put out there. We were done royally and you have to suck it up and deal with it. And we will. It is not something I like to see from my pack and we need to show some character with Northampton coming up. It won’t be a comfortable week for the players or coaches.”
Northampton beat Exeter Chiefs, the only other side to beat Tigers this season, at the weekend to move up to fifth, just one place below Leicester.
While Leicester play Saints on Saturday afternoon, 3.15pm ko, shown live and free on BT Sport, there is a game of interest taking place in France.
Stade Francais’ postponed Champions Cup game with Munster kicks off at 4.45pm. A Stade win would mean they could still mathematically finish top of Pool Four if they beat Leicester in Paris on January 24.