Inside the Tigers’ Den - Stunning Saracens blow away Leicester in the semi-final
How good were Saracens on Saturday? Well I can tell you - exceptional.
Yes Leicester Tigers were not at their best, yes Leicester made a lot of unforced errors, again, just as they did in the European Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Racing Metro. But make no mistake about it the best side won and this really is some Saracens side.
European champions Saracens look well set to defend their Aviva Premiership title at Twickenham on Saturday against Exeter Chiefs, and the 44-17 scoreline in the semi-final at Allianz Park did not flatter them at all.
Saracens were heavy favourites from the start and with good reason. The London side finished the regular season top of the table and came into the game with the club’s trophy cabinet bulging.
At the league’s annual awards night on Wednesday last week full back Alex Goode was named Aviva Premiership Player of the Season,
Maro Itoje added to his European Player of the Year award with the Land Rover Discovery of the Year award and Sarries director of rugby Mark McCall was also named the best in the league.
Saracens players also made up a third of the BT Sport Dream team for the 2015-16 season, with just one Tiger making the side - Telusa Veainu on the wing.
The Tongan back was Leicester’s most dangerous attacking threat on Saturday despite having one of his worst games for the club, he scored Leicester’s first try of the match and made numerous breaks.
All of the above are mitigating factors for why Leicester should not be too disappointed with coming second best on Saturday.
But in the opening minute Tigers almost made a statement which would have defied the odds and could have turned the game on its head.
Leicester have been all about showing more attacking flair this season and it took them all of 10 seconds to do so in the semi-final. Mathew Tait took the kick off and straight away looked to run rather than kick long. He attacked down the blindside and from the next phase, inside their own 22 Leicester ran again with Peter Betham dummying his way over halfway.
Thacker took the ball on, showing and going past the first man, but he was stripped of the ball as he went to ground. Dom Barrow burgled the pill back but he was on the ground as he did so, meaning it was illegal. However no one in the crowd or on the pitch knew that at the time and Ben Youngs sniped through a hole at the edge of a ruck and fed Manu Tuilagi in support to score under the posts after 45 seconds.
It would have been the most glorious of starts to an Aviva Premiership semi-final since they were invented, but with help from the TMO referee JP Doyle ruled out the effort.
Saracens wasted no time in responding with a stunning score, created through wonderful off-loading to keep the ball alive and not allow the Tigers defence to settle.
Will Fraser crossed the line but half the Sarries team were involved with Schalk Brits making the key play, sucking in two defenders with his footwork and then getting the offload away to George Kruis.
Leicester responded positively, playing with ambition. Owen Williams was successfully putting kicks in behind the famously fast and aggressive Saracens defence but he played his hand one too many times and Chris Wyles read his kick, gathered the grubber on the bounce and took off to score.
To make matters much worse Manu Tuilagi pulled up with a hamstring injury as he chased back to try and catch the American, ending his game after 20 minutes.
Despite that England head coach Eddie Jones has still called up the Samoan-born centre for the tour of Australia this summer, although his place on the plane now looks unlikely and would certainly be foolish.
To most people’s surprise Jones has not called upon winger Chris Ashton to face the Wallabies despite him scoring twice on Saturday.
He scored Saracens’ third try of the game, finishing like a world class winger following a brilliant break off the back of the scrum from Billy Vunipola.
Tigers hit self destruct again with 30 seconds left to play in the first half, Wyles intercepting a pass to race 70 metres and score to make it 29-0 at half time.
Tigers were facing down the barrel of a thrashing, despite having had more of the ball in the first half. The difference was Saracens were ruthlessly clinical with their chances.
Leicester started quickly after the break and after a fine break from Owen Williams, through the centre of the Saracens defence, he fed Veainu to score in the corner.
Williams then kicked the conversion and a penalty as the visitors took advantage of Saracens going off the boil. Fraser was shown yellow for stopping a quick tap penalty close to the line and with the flanker off the pitch Barrow powered over the line from close range. Suddenly it was 31-17 and Leicester had a sniff.
But Saracens killed the game off, first with a pair of penalties from Charlie Hodgson, on for injured Owen Farrell. And then in a moment which summed up the game perfectly; a lose pass hit the deck and Itoje beat Youngs to fly hack the ball on and then Ashton got to it first to score a real poacher’s try. Saracens just looked like they wanted it more.
Exeter beat Wasps 34-23 at Sandy Park in their semi-final, but the West Country club will have some job to beat this stunning Saracens side to the title.
Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “We’re bitterly disappointed because we’re better than that, but no complaints, Saracens deserved to win,” he said.
“The first half killed us. We made errors, we forced the game and played into their hands.
“We didn’t execute. We made some good inroads and couldn’t finish.
“I’m disappointed in the way we gave away cheap points.
“We regrouped at half-time and got back in the game for a little bit and credit to the players. But we weren’t good enough.
“We’re developing our game, we’ve had a pretty good season. In the two big games in the semis we have not quite been good enough. Where we sit is probably about right at the moment.
“We have got to learn from the two semi-final defeats this year and come back stronger next year having grown our game.
“You’ve got to take these painful parts, because at some point over the next couple of years we’ll get it right and win something and these are the experiences you have to learn from.”
Leicester as a club and their passionate fan base are used to winning and there was a lot of negative comments being made on social media after the game on Saturday but this is worth keeping in mind.
The latest accounts released (up until June 2015) show that Saracens are now £45.1m in debt, having made a loss of £3.98m last season,
In that same year Tigers made an operating profit of £479,000.
It’s not glamorous, you don’t get open top bus tours around the city for it, but their is something to be said for being a financially stable club, not reliant on a benefactor’s cheque book.
A small piece of good news for Leicester was the unexpected England senior team call-up for young prop Ellis Genge.
The 21 year-old, on loan from Bristol, has only made five appearances in the Aviva Premiership since switching to Leicester but has caught the eye during his time on the pitch. However with just one start for Tigers his call-up comes as a bit of a shock.
He will joined prop Dan Cole and Ben Youngs on the tour, and potentially Tuilagi, and looks set to feature for England when they take on Wales on Sunday.
Last week number eight Jordan Crane announced he is leaving Leicester in the summer after 10 years at the club and 223 appearances.
He is moving to Bristol who are favourites to win promotion into the Premiership.
Crane has had his detractors, me amongst them, but he has been a fine servant to club, wining four league titles during his Leicester career and three England caps.
Coming into the club is 26 year-old Welsh back rower Luke Hamilton who will swap French Top 14 side Agen for the East Midlands.