Inside the Tigers’ Den - Uncapped players impress in Ulster victory

Leicester Tigers v Ulster. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-141020-141351001
Leicester Tigers v Ulster. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-141020-141351001
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Leicester Tigers prop Fraser Balmain could barely stand at the end of his side’s 25-18 victory over Ulster on Saturday; so great had been the 22-year-olds efforts over 80 explosive minutes of high quality European Champions Cup rugby.

The young prop, who is getting more and more prominent on the England selectors’ radar, was one of many Leicester players to respond to the criticism thrown at the club in recent weeks and stand up and be counted. Welford Road was more than 4,000 fans short of a full house on Saturday thanks to a late 7.45pm kick off but the stadium was a staggering surround of sound. The electric atmosphere, added to greatly by the visiting Ulster faithful, was palpable and akin to the great European football environments created by football clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United. And the Tigers raised their game in equal measure to their fans.

Leicester Tigers v Ulster. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-141020-141402001

Leicester Tigers v Ulster. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-141020-141402001

Leicester were pushed all the way but produced the type of purple patch which produces enough points to beat most teams on this continent.

First half tries from Owen Williams, Graham Kitchener and Freddie Burns along with two conversions and two penalties were enough to beat the Irish side.

Ulster came back strong in the second half and tries from Tommy Bowe and Franco van der Merwe, which along with the kicking of Paddy Jackson made it a tight contest.

The players rose to the occasion in what was a must win match for Leicester, despite it being their first in the competition. Tigers’ group of death alongside Scarlets and defending European champions Toulon means every home game is an absolute must win and even the failure to secure an attacking bonus point and allowing Ulster a losing bonus point could come back to haunt Leicester.

But captain Ben Youngs could not have done much more on Saturday night, he had probably his best match for Leicester in 18 months. The scrum half was named man of the match and created the second try after batting an Ulster pass up in the air, reclaiming it and passing inside to the excellent Graham Kitchener to touch down. The lock was outstanding throughout, winning vital line out ball both on his own throw and against the opposition and being a general nuisance around the park.

With Marcos Ayerza back from international duty the Leicester scrum had some real bite again, but even more importantly the agile prop caused havoc around the field, flying into tackles and rucks.

He was almost as good at the rucks as All Black legend Brad Thorn who is providing Leicester with some much needed quick ball. In the backs Owen Williams and Mat Tait both impressed.

And it is a good time to be impressing. On Wednesday Stuart Lancaster will name his England squad for the Autumn Internationals and there are a number of Tigers in the frame for selection, not least Kitchener who is ready for the step up.

The lock is a real weapon in the line out, athletic around the park as a carrier, tackler and charge down expert. England are blessed with an abundance of talent at lock but with team mates Ed Slater and Geoff Parling both unavailable this Autumn because of injury now is as good a time as any for Kitchener.

Balmain might have to wait a while longer for his full international call-up, having played against the Barbarians in May, but he is one of the next generation of props to anchor the England pack for years to come.

Jamie Noon has also continued his great form of 2013/14 and was simply everywhere on Saturday - but he too probably has too many high calibre players in front of him for now.

The terrible news for Leicester and England is that Manu Tuilagi, the most dangerous attacker for either side, had a reoccurrence of the groin injury which kept him out of action for three weeks. He is now highly doubtful for the Autumn series.

However before attention moves to the international sphere Leicester have the not inconsiderable task of an away trip to the Scarlets in South Wales. The Welsh side only lost 28-18 away at defending champions Toulon yesterday (Sunday) and are not a side to be underestimated.

But Tigers are in the unusual situation where no one is treating them as a legitimate threat for the cup, which is understandable considering their indifferent form and the greatness of the likes of Toulon, Clermont, Northampton and Saracens, but maybe the unaccustomed underdog tag will suit them.

An injured Tiger is a dangerous beast - mind you a fully fit one is even more deadly, so if Leicester can get through the group a team full of fit, rested and recovered international players back after Christmas could cause an upset against any of the best sides in Europe.