Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester rediscover their identity
Saturday had all the feelings of a play-off game and Leicester Tigers don’t lose too many play-off games.
Tigers captain Ben Youngs summed it best when he said it was just like a quarter-final.
In effect it was knock-out rugby for two teams with ambitions to finish in the top four of the Aviva Premiership to have a chance to win the title.
But against all the odds Wasps, despite having a one man advantage for 43 minutes after Tigers centre Seremaia Bai was shown red by referee Wayne Barnes for a reckless and dangerous clear-out at the ruck, lost 26-21 on Saturday in front of a record crowd of 32,019 at the Ricoh Arena.
It was the largest ever attendance for a club rugby game played at a home stadium and despite all the talks of Leicester fans turning the stadium green,red and white, barring the occasional reverberating Tigers chant, it was an ocean of yellow and black flags.
But while Wasps may have won on the support front they lost in most areas on the field, including most importantly the scoreboard.
Leicester started brilliantly, scoring through full back Niall Morris in the 7th minute and Vereniki Goneva in the 29th before Bai, who has universally been heralded as one of the nicest guys in rugby by his team mates and coach after the game, was shown a red card after a senseless and dangerous clearout of a ruck which saw him fire in from distance and striker Wasps number eight Nathan Hughes on the head.
However Wasps were unable to find a way over the line all afternoon and that remained the case even with Leicester playing a man short.
Former Tiger Andy Goode kept them in touch with 18 points with the boot but against all the odds Leicester scored in the corner through Adam Thompstone in the 71st minute to put them in a winning position.
Wasps’ replacement fly-half Alex Lozowski added a further three points with five minutes to play to give the home side hope but the Tigers’ monumental defence remained unbroken.
Youngs called it a season defining win which has instilled confidence in the squad as they approach the business end of the season. But it was fuelled by fear of making some unwanted history. He said: “We didn’t want to be the first team in ten years not to make the play-offs. I think this is the springboard we needed and we showed what it is about to play for Leicester and my brother epitomised that; I thought he was absolutely outstanding, Brad Thorn - guys like that - guys just rolled up their sleeves.
“When you go down to 14, you can either be a victim of it or you can come out fighting and we came out fighting. The boys were outstanding and we got what we deserved, credit to us.
“We have literally been a boxer against the ropes hanging in there, and come out in what ever round we are in now, fighting.
“It was time to get it right, and we had to get it right today. We have too many good players, guys who care about it and they are going to turn up and put it on the line like they did today and we just had to win.
“We are happy with the result but we are pleased more than anything with the performance to be honest.
“This will be a yearly event now and I think it had a really special atmosphere today and it was nice to be a part of.
“I think the most important thing about today was that we rediscovered what we are about and that’s what is so pleasing.
“With this group you have got a lot of international guys, you just don’t need to worry about it too much because you know they are going to turn up. They are too proud. You just know when it matters, when it counts, you look to your left and your right and you know they are going to do the job and they did that today.”
If results had gone their way on Sunday Leicester could have been heading into the other East Midland’s derby, against the league leader’s Northampton on Saturday with both sides safe in the knowledge that a play-off place was secure.
However Exeter Chiefs, and particularly Tigers old-boy Thomas Waldrom didn’t read the scrip and beat Saracens 24-20 with the number eight crossing the line twice to equal Neil Back’s single season try scoring record for a forward (16).
The result is Leicester must beat Saints.
Youngs said: “It’s all very well doing it today but we have got to do it next week, and the week after that, if we get that opportunity but we can definitely take some confidence from it and confidence is probably is what we have been searching for a while now.
“Today can really galvanise us and we can take that confidence and belief and really work on Monday and through the week and look forward to Saints coming to Welford Road.”
It will be the last East Midland’s derby for fan favourite flanker Julian Salvi.
The world class open side flanker will leave the club in the summer after making 112 appearances for Tigers.
Since joining Leicester from Super 15 side the Brumbies in 2011 he has established himself as being consistently one of Tigers’ top performers.
The turnover specialist is arguably the best open side in the Aviva Premiership and were he English, not Australian, we would almost certainly be playing international rugby.
Salvi has been linked with a move to the Exeter Chiefs, or a French Top 14 club.