RUGBY: Inside the Tiger’s Den - Saracens too strong for Leicester
Every team must deal with injuries. In a game as physical as rugby, particularly the modern game where 30 per cent of an Aviva Premiership squad is injured at any one time, they are inevitable.
How a team deals with them will go a long way to deciding where they sit in table come May.
On Saturday two sides who both have ambitions to be top of the pile came to blows at Allianz Park as Saracens beat Leicester Tigers 24-10.
Saracens were missing two of their world class talents in the form of locks Maro Itoje (broken hand) and George Kruis (knee), while Leicester were missing international centre duo Manu Tuilagi (groin) and Matt Toomua (knee).
The difference was one of Saracen’s replacements for their second row duo, Mike Rhodes, then went on to win the man of the match award. The north London club just have so much quality they are miles ahead of everyone else in the league at the moment and maybe in Europe as well where they are looking to win back-to-back titles, just as Leicester did in the early 2000s.
That was a long time ago now and Leicester are a long way away from repeating that feat. This Saracens side aren’t.
American Chris Wyles opened the scoring for Saracens, finishing a wonderfully simple sweeping move in the corner.
Saracen’s wolfpack defence has become legendary in the rugby world and the cornerstone of their success. The hosts made Leicester work so hard for every point they scored. Tigers had to go through 18 phases of play before they got their first chance for Owen Williams to kick three points.
Despite Tigers’ struggles this season Williams is the league’s most accurate kicker with a success rate of just shy of 87 percent. That said his starting berth is far from locked down as Freddie Burns once again came off the replacements bench and made a positive impression on the game, having effectively won the match the previous weekend against Racing 92 doing the same thing.
With Leicester’s injury issues in the centres the pairing of Burns at flyhalf and Williams at inside centre, which is how they finished on Saturday, looks their strongest option going forward.
But what Leicester really need is some consistency in selection. Nine games into the season and Leicester have played the same centre partnerships together on just five occasions, Mat Tait at 12 and Betham at 13 on three occasions and then Matt Toomua at 12 and Tait at 13 in both the European Champions Cup games.
The problem with that is Mat Tait has had a renaissance in his career at full back. So while he started his career at centre, and has played in a World Cup final in that position, he is not best suited to it. Betham has been one of Leicester’s best attacking threats but really the Australian international was signed as a winger, a position he has barely played in since joining the club.
After an Owen Farrell penalty kick, Saracens went up through the gears and scored in the opposite corner through Scotland international winger Sean Maitland.
Early in the second half Tigers got their defence at a catch and drive lineout move wrong and big Billy Vunipola drove over the line for a 24-3 lead. What Leicester would do for a ball carrier with the qualities of Vunipola - a big bulldozer of the player has to be on the scotting list for the club’s management ahead of next season.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “At 24-3 down we had nothing else but to throw the kitchen sink at them. We did that and stopped them getting their bonus point. We can build on that spirit and effort, but it was still disappointing.
“I’m pleased we stayed in the battle and were playing for the bonus point in the end, but the first half was difficult for us and they controlled the game well,” he said.
Prop Mako Vunipola, who has arguably been the player of the season in the Aviva Premiership so far this season, was shown yellow for a late tackle on Burns, who was finding holes in the home defence.
With the extra man Leicester attacked down the flank, and in a great counter, started by Burns, scored through George Catchpole who showed good skill to take Williams’ offload and then power to carry two Saracens defenders over the line to touch down.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Leicester, despite Saturday’s defeat being Leicester’s third of the season in the Premiership, they are just clinging onto fourth spot, and an all important play-off place, as the league goes into a temporary hibernation while the first of the Autumn internationals take place.
There is still club rugby going on with Bath and Newport Gwent Dragons the opponents in the Anglo Welsh Cup. But the cup competition has largely been used as a development tool so Leicester will be able to go a couple of weeks without playing a “must win” game and give some of their wider squad an opportunity to play.
Two men who should expect to see more game time are Jack Roberts, who started at inside centre of Saturday, and Catchpole, who impressed when he came on for a try-scoring cameo.