RUGBY: Inside the Tigers’ Den - Derby victory just the medicine for Leicester
Leicester Tigers ended a run of five defeats in a row on Saturday with a derby victory, 27-20, over Northampton Saints.
Yes it was just the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the least prestigious of the three competitions the club were entered in at the start of the season, but it was the East Midlands derby in front of about 25,000 at Welford Road.
It was a proper derby game, full of desire, passion and quality at times. Was it perfect from Leicester? No. But it stopped the rot.
Passion and intensity is something which has been lacking from Leicester’s performance of late, and it was some of the fringe players in the squad who led by example.
Harry Thacker impresses every time he pulls on the green, red and white striped shirt. He could just be the future of this club and the answer to their current problems. His dynamism is contagious and despite being the smallest forward on the pitch he scored a try here. Thacker is not starting for the club in their biggest games because he plays at hooker, a position taken by club captain and former England and British Lion Tom Youngs.
Youngs is a man you want on the pitch, as one of the best hookers in the league, but right now Thacker is the man Leicester need on the field. It is perhaps time to give him an extended run at openside flanker, a position many feel might be his natural position anyway.
With young openside Will Evans picking up an ankle injury which saw him carried off the pitch, Thacker might just get the chance now.
Evans did not leave the pitch before making his mark on the game, scoring the opening try of the match with a drive from close range. He looked good in a backrow which included Tom Croft. The former international looked rusty and short of full match fitness but had some telling moments in the match. It will be good for Leicester to have some competition for places.
Number eight Luke Hamilton made up the back row and brought a physicality which has been lacking at times this season from Leicester’s forward play. His yell of excitement and happiness at Tigers winning a late scrum penalty late in the game was a classic derby moment.
Harry Mallinder hit back for Saints after Mat Tait failed to gather a good cross-field kick.
Leicester hit back with a cracking try. Another youngster who has caught the eye, Welshman Jack Roberts, started the drive, showing great feet and determination to escape several tackles, before off-loading to Jono Kitto who found second row Dom Barrow to crash over the line.
With Tigers on the charge, bouncing through tackles, Thacker crossed the line.
After the break Northampton’s Nafi Tuitavake and Rory Hutchinson crossed to close the gap but Leicester were good for the win.
As has been the case all season in the Anglo Welsh cup Geordan Murphy was leading the coaching team on Saturday, and after the match he gave his thoughts on a result which ends a difficult run for everyone at the club, and has seen their director of rugby Richard Cockerill lose his job.
He said: “I have been here 20 seasons and I don’t remember having such a tough run of games. Emotionally, it can wear you down.
“But I believe that if the guys who take to the field play with the passion they did today, we can compete with anyone. It’s not all doom and gloom.
“We have got some work to do because we are in a hole. The only way you can get out of the hole is to grab a spade and dig. We will work and get out of that hole.”
“We talked before the game about a performance being vital and I thought we played with a lot of passion and pride.
“I’m really pleased for the guys.
“It was a tough game, they brought a strong side and brought first-team players off the bench while we had a very young bench and brought them on later in the game.”
The victory means Leicester have qualified for the semi-finals of the competition, which makes their trip to European and English champions Saracens a dead rubber on Sunday.
Quins have also qualified for the semi-final and Saracens and Exeter are top of their groups with one round left. Northampton and Ospreys could both challenge for qualification.
But everyone at the club will want to keep the momentum going, and a win over the best club in Europe, albeit when they are stripped of their internationals due to the Six Nations kicking off, would do just that.
With Gloucester and Bristol the next two sides to visit Welford Road in the Aviva Premiership they have a good chance of climbing the table, where they sit in fifth.
Ben Young and Dan Cole are expected to start for England against France in their opening game of the Six Nations on Saturday.
Prop Ellis Genge is also included in the 26-man squad which will be reduced to 23 by Eddie Jones today.
In the meantime Leicester forwards coach Lewis Deacon has been named as one of three coaches from Premiership clubs who will assist with the management of the England U20s team during the Six Nations.
Ed Slater has been given a two week ban for striking.