Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester Tigers dig deep to beat Bath
Leicester Tigers added another layer of brick to fortress Welford Road on Sunday as they saw off the challenge of another league heavyweight - Bath.
Sometimes results are more important than performances, particularly against top four rivals, and Sunday was one of those days.
Leicester were second best for huge portions of the game, the set piece both at lineout and scrum time were barely functioning and Bath’s attackers menaced the defensive line and yet it was Tigers who finished arms aloft.
Bath made more passes (133-76), more runs (107-79), had more possession (56%) and territory (61%). The visitors broke the line more often (9-8), beat more defenders (21-11) and threw more successful offloads (9-8). But where it really mattered - the scoreboard - they cames second best. Tigers scored more tries (2-1) more conversions (1-0) and more penalties (3-2).
There is a suggestion that Tiger want to be a bit more like Bath in the way they play the game, using their expansive and increasingly lightweight but agile backs to cut their way through sides. But they had enough of the old fashion Tigers brute force to turn the game into an arm wrestle on Sunday and then win it, 21-11.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “We showed guts to dig ourselves out of a hole, there were a lot of things that we did poorly but with a good old-fashioned bit of spirit we got ourselves to the finish line.
“Bath dominated for large parts, the set-piece was a complete mess for both sides and in poor conditions we managed to find a way to win which is encouraging.
“The boys rallied around, the attitude and the way that we galvanised together to keep Bath out who were dangerous and played well - they will be disappointed to be going home with nothing - but fair play to Leicester. The boys worked hard and deserved it.”
In truly terrible weather conditions, with the wind rocking the corner flags and at times torrential rain, Bath created a superb try to open the scoring. A poor up and under kick from Tommy Bell was claimed by former Tiger Horacio Agulla, he got he offload away and the ball was worked to Fijian scrum half Nikola Matawalu who dummied Leicester’s Telusa Veainu and set off down-field. Matt Banahan drew a man and released Anthony Watson and no one was catching the England flier.
Bell replied with a penalty before Veainu made amends for his defensive lapse, intercepting a pass from Ross Batty in the 33rd minute to go the length of the field from inside his own 22. That break helped the Tongan winger to once again make the most metres out of anyone on the pitch (150).
Bell added another penalty to make it 11-5 at halftime.
After the break Bath won a pair of penalties for former Tigers protégée George Ford to kick and suddenly the game was on a knife edge at 11-11.
Then Ed Slater, making his 100th appearance for the club, took a calculated gamble when he brought down a rolling maul which looked to be rumbling all the way to the try line. He was shown yellow by referee JP Doyle but Bath failed to score from the following phases.
Slater was impressive on his return to the starting line-up after near on a year out with injury problems and alongside Mike Fitzgerald and beefy flanker Mike Williams delivered some much needed physicality. Williams in fact was named man of the match for his efforts.
Late cameos from Tom Croft and Graham Kitchener suggest there is still a place in this team for at least one of them as they both seemed to dramatically improve the Tigers’ lineout when they came on. It should also be noted that by that point in the match the worst of the squall-like conditions had abated.
Leicester battled through 10 minutes of playing with 14 men without conceding. Tigers turned to their pack to win the game and win it they did, earning penalties for Bell to kick and then mauling their way close enough to the line for prop Dan Cole to sneak over from close range. It ended a scoring drought of 78 games for the England man who last touched down for the club in an LV= Cup game against Gloucester in 2011. This one was a big one as it took Tigers to third in the table with some tough games behind them in Wasps, Exeter and Harlequins.
With Worcester away on Saturday and Newcastle at home on Boxing Day in the Aviva Premiership they will now be looking to secure 10 points from the month of December and improve their already impressive home record.
Leicester are now unbeaten at home in the league and Europe for more than a year. The last time they lost was to London Irish back on September 27, 2014. Since then they have won 17 games in the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup. The only side to get any joy from a visit to Welford Road in the last 14 months was Exeter who beat a development side in the LV= Cup semi-final.
Argentina also won their pre-season friendly with the club earlier this year. But in the two competitions Leicester prioritise they hold a startlingly good record especially considering much of that record was amassed when the club were far from their best.
It is why the double header with Munster coming up in Europe is vitally important as victory will set up a tilt at playing a quarter-final at home. Connacht showed Munster are no longer invincible at Thomond Park, losing 18-12 to their Irish rivals for the first time in 29 years on Saturday.
This weekend’s opponents Worcester were beaten 48-18 by top of the league Saracens at the London Double Header at Twickenham.