INSIDE THE TIGERS’ DEN - Leicester restore pride in semi-final defeat
There is no fairytale Premiership final for Leicester this season after they were beaten 21-20 by Wasps on Saturday by a heartbreaking late try.
But if they play like they did in the semi-final in every game next season they will finish on the very top of the pile.
Tigers were given no chance by the bookies going into the semi-final, after a season of looking largely mediocre. They were not perfect at the Ricoh Arena but they were brave, brutal and at times brilliant.
What Leicester’s 24-four men did on Saturday was restore pride in the badge. A pride that has been blemished and bruised this tumultuous season.
Tigers director of rugby Matt O’Connor reflect: “It was a phenomenal effort. It’s hard to describe really. We didn’t deserve to lose, I thought we did enough.
“The effort was unquestionable. The work ethic and how we dug in for each other was fantastic. Unfortunately sometimes you lose and it was one of those occasions.
“We have to make sure that we are better. The margins are tiny at that level and at stages we probably didn’t close it out well enough and get ourselves to the other end of the field for a number of reasons.
“This year is about perspective. You dust yourself off and make sure you’re better next year.
“I think results have shown over the past four or five weeks that there’s a lot of growth in the individuals we’ve got.”
Despite making the play-offs for the 13th year in a row, despite winning the Anglo Welsh Cup, this will be seen as a disappointing season for Tigers. But they did not go out with a whimper - they went out with a bang.
Despite conceding two tries it was one of their best defensive displays of the season, looking organised with outstanding line speed to put Wasps on the back-foot for most of the game.
Their big players turned up as well. The Aviva Premiership’s Discovery Player of the Season, Ellis Genge, was rugged, powerful and never took a backward step.
Telusa Veainu was almost untouchable when given half a yard of space. His dazzling footwork is a joy to behold on a rugby pitch. And in truth every player on the pitch made a telling contribution.
One important area they could have been better was kicking from hand, with Youngs and Burns both making regrettable early errors in that area. But that will left for the analysis room. For now the players have a summer off to recover. Well all but props Dan Cole, a Lions tourist, and Genge who has linked up with England this week to prepare to take on the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday, before jetting off to Argentina.
Wasps made the perfect start to the game, Kurtley Beale showed why he is one of the highest paid players in the league, taking a very challenging high ball, and from the following ruck Leicester’s Brendon O’Connor was caught offside allowing multi-award winner Jimmy Gopperth to kick his side ahead with just two minutes on the clock. Penalties have been a problem for Tigers all season, they have conceded the most out of any side in the league, and one less on Saturday would have won the game.
One of the big duels in the game was always going to be at scrum half and Ben Youngs made an immediate impact, snipping around the edges of the ruck to make a good 20 metre break before putting in a poor kick which ended the chance.
Leicester were highly competitive throughout the game but Wasps have the most dangerous backline to ever grace the Premiership, and they only need one chance to score. Eight minutes in they proved just that with Beale finishing off a stunning round the corner attack, with Danny Cipriani and Willie Le Roux starring in the build-up. Gopperth’s conversion made it 10-0.
Freddie Burns replied with a pair of penalties for Leicester to keep them in the game, the second a gorgeous strike from the edge of the pitch. How Leicester fans would love to see Burns in the Tiger stripes next season - but he is off to Bath.
Gopperth, who picked of the Aviva Premiership Player of the Season award, and Golden Boot, added another three points for Wasps after Ben Youngs was put under pressure in his own 22.
Leicester’s opening try of the game was a stunning sustained attack, gaining advantage with each powerful drive before Burns threw a inch-perfect miss-pass into the hands of Peter Betham to score the try which drew the sides level at 13-13 with the fly-half’s conversion.
The problem is Leicester are not making smart decisions for 80 minutes. They had obviously been told to front up but some unnecessary niggle after a penalty was given saw referee Matthew Carley march them back an extra 10 metres and that allowed Gopperth to make it 16-13 at half time.
Leicester have been through three head coaches this season, but what Matt O’Connor, who looks likely be in charge for sometime to come, has brought to the table is a fighting spirit. This is no longer a team who are going to lose 38-0 and 42-0 like they did in the European Champions Cup this season. And they came back strong on Saturday taking the lead on 52 minutes through Veainu - thanks largely to a brilliant platform laid by the powerful forwards.
But there was still time for a twist in this real club rugby classic. With two minutes to play, after heroic defending from Leicester, and with Burns unconscious on the ground after another brave effort to stop the Wasps onslaught, Gopperth gave the scoring pass to put in Josh Bassett to score in the corner for the winning try.
Many people criticise the play-off system in the Aviva Premiership, believing top of the league at the end of the regular season should take the trophy - which is a valid argument, but the two sides who have finished top of the pile will compete for the title on Saturday in the Grand Final at Twickenham and in truth that is more often than not the case with home ground advantage providing a huge bonus in the semi-finals. Exeter beat Saracens 18-16 in the other match.
So after two mouth watering games like we enjoyed on Saturday, who really has a bad word to say about it.