Inside the Tigers’ Den: Magic in Europe dispels domestic gloom
The demise of English rugby has been greatly exaggerated.
Yes it was the national team’s worst ever performance at a Rugby World Cup, and the worst ever performance by a host nation, but last weekend something magical happened in the European Champions Cup.
The story started on Friday night when Saracens made the trip to Ravenhill under the lights in Pool One. Leicester know how hard it is to win against Ulster, having been drawn in the same group regularly in recent years but the London club won 27-9 to come home with a bonus point and go top of their group.
Tigers kicked things off on Saturday playing in a game which had its own, less intense pressure. Leicester have won their last 20 games against Italian opposition and this resurgent team were not about to see their copy book blotted against a Treviso side who have gone backwards in recent seasons.
Despite wet and windy conditions Leicester won 36-3 to claim their second bonus point win of the competition and go top of Pool Four.
Newly signed Tongan international Telusa Veainu was the star of the show, scoring two tries – his second with a blinding piece of footwork – and he could have had a hat-trick but for a 50/50 decision from the TMO going against him.
Peter Betham also scored an excellent try for Leicester after the forwards had won a penalty try from referee Mattieu Raynal following repeated scrum infringements by the Italians.
Replacement Greg Bateman, the club’s third choice hooker, scored a fifth try a minute from full time when he canonballed his way through some tired tackles.
The Saints have been struggling so far this season in the league and had a tough away game at Guinness Pro 12 champions Glasgow Warriors later on Saturday.
But a pair of tries from their own South Sea island star Ahsee Tuala (Samoa) and one from George Pisi (also Samoa) helped them to a 26-15 win and first place in Pool Three.
Bath, Leicester’s opponents in the Aviva Premiership at Welford Road on Sunday, also had a difficult assignment as they welcomed Leinster to the The Rec. The English team dominated the visitors for much of the contest but found themselves level at 16-16 late in the game.
Up stepped England fly half George Ford to strike a penalty for a famous win and give a reminder to newly appointed Red Rose head coach Eddie Jones that he wants the number 10 shirt back, having been dropped to the bench after the opening game of the World Cup by Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster.
On an action packed day of rugby, Exeter Chiefs beat French top 14 side Bordeaux Begles 34-19 at Sandy Park, with young English talent flourishing once again in the form of Henry Slade.
So far so good. Five from five and an English club at the top of all five pools at the end of play on Saturday. The only thing in the way of a clean sweep were the defending three-year back-to-back European Champions Toulon who took on Wasps on Sunday.
But something magical happened at The Ricoh. Wasps went at the star-studded French heavyweights with such ferocious pace that they didn’t know what had hit them and after 80 minutes the Coventry-based team were celebrating not just an almost unbelievable 32-6 win but a bonus point as well, to see them leapfrog Bath to top the standings in Pool Five.
The stars of the show for Wasps offered plenty of encouragement for Jones as well, with Elliot Daly, Joe Simpson, Joe Launchbury, James Gaskell and double try scorer Nathan Hughes.
So for the first time in six years and just the third time ever, all six English sides playing in the top tier of European rugby won.
Even better than that, 10 of the 12 Aviva Premiership sides playing in Europe were successful.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill was certainly happy with his club’s start to the European campaign as they look to not just qualify but earn a home quarter-final to improve their chances of progression.
In the last two seasons when Leicester have got out of the group stages they have had to travel to Toulon and Clermont for quarter-finals to play at grounds where the hosts rarely lose.
Fortress Welford Road is looking stronger every week and the Leicester boss is intent to use that to his advantage this season.
He said: “Two wins out of two is a good start and getting two bonus points is important too – every point will count. We can go into the next set of fixtures with a bit of confidence and a bit of belief and see where that takes us.
“Treviso made it hard for us, they were tackling themselves to a standstill. We had some good set-pieces early in the second half and probably should have made more from that. But we kept going and we got the rewards in the end.
“Our attitude in defence, not to let them in, even when we were well ahead, said a lot for the team. The boys responded well after conceding three tries against Stade Francais.”
You get the feeling Leicester are very much planning for the long term this season. With most of the squad finally fit, Cockerill was able to rest some big players in Treviso and still get the job done.
They will now go back to the league for two weeks, starting with Bath at home on Sunday and then Worcester away the following week.
Then it’s the big ones, Munster away and at home back in Europe in what will likely be the defining games of the pool stages for Leicester.
By that point, competition for places might be even fiercer as South African centre and former Munster player Jean de Villiers should have arrived and more players look set to have recovered from injury.
For many the return from injury started when Tigers Development XV played Gloucester United in the A-League at Welford Road on Monday night.
While the hosts lost 18-31 it was not all bad news as the club welcomed back lock Graham Kitchener, winger Gonzalo Camacho, centre Christian Loamanu and prop Aniseko Sio after injury layoffs.
Argentina international Camacho scored a try late in the match for Leicester and young academy number eight Fred Tuilagi scored the other.