Inside the Tigers’ Den - Miraculous week for Leicester Tigers
What a week it has been for the Leicester Tigers, they win the derby with the last play of an incredible game, announce four contract deals including a World Cup winner and the hottest property in the Aviva Premiership - oh and Manu Tuilagi, the club’s biggest star, makes his return to action after 15 months injured.
Let’s start at the top. The East Midlands derby. Leicester flew out the blocks like a side possessed, like a team who had something to prove after a humbling at Saracens a week earlier.
And it didn’t take long for Matt Smith, the most loyal of Tigers, to score in the corner, getting on the outside of Jamie Gibson and then dummying his way to line.
It took another 18 minutes for Leicester to score again, this time using the might of their pack, which has been questioned in recent weeks, and at times on Saturday, to power their way over. Outstanding man of the match Lachlan McCaffrey was the man to dot down.
All credit must be given to the Tigers selectors who saw the potential in McCaffrey when he was playing for London Welsh, one of the worst teams in the history of the Premiership.
A few eyebrows were raised when a club of Leicester’s reputation went for the flanker turned number eight but he has played so well there is now talk of him being a candidate for England despite his position being a remarkable area of strength.
The electric Tigers fan, packing Welford Road to the rafters for a new record attendance of 25,849, didn’t have to wait long for the next try, just three minutes in fact, and it was the pick of the bunch.
Ben Youngs, who looked every bit the international scrum half, showed his blistering pace, before giving an outrageous dummy which was every bit as good as Matt Dawson’s on the 1997 Lions tour, and will stick in the mind of Tigers fans just the same. With just the fullback to beat Youngs played in Owen Williams to score.
Northampton didn’t know what had hit them. But they clawed their way back, first through the boot of JJ Hanrahan and then through the power of the pack.
Just before the break Teimana Harrison touched down via a driving maul.
After the break Leicester self destructed - after building for 19 phases they stretched themselves too thin rather than the opposition and when skipper Tom Youngs dropped the ball Welsh winger George North was the first to react, hacking on and then gathering to score.
Enter the fray Manu Tuilagi, on 51 minutes after suspiciously being named on the bench late in the day for Niki Goneva.
Freddie Burns, on in the first half for injured Owen Williams (broken jaw), who joined openside Brendon O’Connor (hamstring pull) and Telusa Veainu (head knock) amongst the walking wounded, added a pair of penalties to stop the rot and in the end they proved vital.
Northampton tighthead Paul Hill made a few Tigers look a little silly with the greatest prop try that never was. From a standing start he brushed off the attentions of Ben Youngs and then beat Graham Kitchener and the rest of the Leicester side for pace. However once again Saints fans will be cursing referee Wayne Barnes, this time giving the softest of penalties for a high tackle in the build up to Hill’s run-in.
However Northampton had the momentum and when Tigers messed up their maul defence Gibson raced untouched through the middle to score. Saints replacement Stephen Myler scored the conversion and then a penalty to make it 27-27.
But in the last minute of regular time Ben Youngs used every ounce of experience he has gained buy a penalty out of Courtney Lawes and Burns made no mistake from the spot.
Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “Good sides win when they do some average things, and we did some average things today but we found a way to win, however fortuitous that may or may not have been.”
Tuilagi’s most significant contribution was a huge tackle on Lawes to stop the England lock crashing over for what would have been a winning score.
Cockerill said: “I am not sure how far off full fitness he is in 80-minute terms.
“He played 25 or so minutes today, and he is remembering how to play rugby again. Hopefully, there will be no reaction to that.
“He will play next week, and we will build his fitness up gradually.
“At this point, I am not sure he is ready to play Test match rugby.
“He needs to play for Leicester, we need to get him fit and make sure he is 100 per cent right before he starts playing Test matches.”
On Monday, the smile on the face of Leicester fans got even bigger after the club had another Magic Monday of signing announcements.
First it was winger Adam Thompstone extending his time at the club, then centre Matt Smith and finally a big one.
Superstar in the making Veainu has agreed a new long term deal to stay at the club after initially signing for a season following an impressive Rugby World Cup with Tonga.
Then came an announcement out of left field - 2007 World Cup winning winger JP Pieterson will join the club in the summer.