RUGBY: Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester not the finished article yet
After last week’s win at home to Bath, when Leicester put in their first top class performance of the season it would be easy to think this growing Tigers side had finally reached maturity.
But Saturday’s 34-30 loss away at Sale Sharks in the Aviva Premiership is a reminder that this is a side who still have some developing to do if they want to reach the summit of the English game once again.
Leicester remain in fourth place in the league despite the loss, with a place in top four and play-off places the all important aim for any ambitious club in the league, however they are not showing the form to have early stars Wasps or Saracens too worried.
The main problem is still the defence.
Tigers have conceded 15 tries this season and 126 points, that’s the fourth worst record in the 12 team league behind Bristol (26, 12th place), Harlequins (17, 11th place) and Exeter Chiefs (16, 6th place).
In contrast Saracens have conceded just three tries.
Leicester shipped four tries on Saturday with Mike Phillips, Johnny Leota, Paolo Odogwu prop Halani Aulika all crossing.
Former Welsh international Phillips was first to score, the former British Lion rolling back the years to catch out former Lions team-mate Dan Cole sleeping at the edge of a ruck and then stepping Tigers’ last man Adam Thompstone, wrong footing the winger so well that the he didn’t even get a finger on him.
Leicester hit back with a sumptuous try. While they have been struggling to keep tries out, only the three sides ahead of them have scored more so far this season, and Peter Betham’s opener at the AJ Bell Stadium may well be the best yet. Thompson started the break before feeding Betham, who then passed inside to Brendon O’Connor - who is proving to be an excellent support player - with the flanker eventually passing the ball back out to the Australian to complete the 60 metre move by touching down in the corner.
If Betham’s first try was one of the best team tries seen so far this season his second try was the best individual effort to date.
He hit the line at pace to take an inside ball from O’Connor and slipped two tackles during an arcing run of 40 metres before carrying Nev Edwards over the line on his way to touching down under the posts.
Thompstone was again beaten far too easily when former Tigers academy player Odogwu crossed next for Sale. The diminutive winger took an inside ball from the back of the lineout before applying his dancing feet to shimmy past the Tigers defence.
Odogwu terrorised the Tigers’ defence during the summer sevens competition as well and allowing the winger to leave the club is looking increasingly like a mistake.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill was not a happy man at the final whistle following his sides’ sloppy defensive performance.
Cole was once again caught out guarding a ruck by Leota who went straight through the middle of the breakdown to score.
Cockerill said: “We coughed up soft tries and were, on a couple of occasions, very easy to score against,” he said. “Away from home, when you’re in control of the game, you need to be better than that and we weren’t. It’s a concern that we keep conceding tries like that and it’s costing us games.
“We’re working on everything but players make poor decisions and you get caught, and it happened at least twice. We got caught too easily and are making poor, fundamental errors.”
They did not learn their lesson in the first half however as Aulika managed to power his way through a couple of tackles to score for the Sharks after the break.
Mike Williams, who has just been called up to the England Elite Player squad, will not want to rewatch the match as the big prop barged his way through the burly flankers’ attempted tackle on his way to the line.
Thompstone gave Leicester some hope that another epic comeback was on the cards with a superb finish in the corner despite the attention of three tacklers. Owen Williams converted to make it a one point game but Will Addison replied with a penalty for Sale and that saw out the victory to condemn Leicester to a third straight loss to the Sharks for the first time in 40 years.
Cockerill concluded: “Credit to Sale, they played well and they deserved the win but it’s two steps forwards and two steps back.”
It was an altogether better experience for Tigers’ Development XV in the A League on Monday night as they returned to the North to take on Sale Jets.
A resounding 34-0 victory was the result to keep their unbeaten record intact. Tigers were awarded two penalty tries, both from scrums close to the Jets’ line and George Catchpole and Sam Yawayawa (2) crossed for the visitors.
On Friday England head coach Eddie Jones named his 45-man elite player squad for the up-coming autumn internationals.
Props Ellis Genge and Dan Cole, flankers Will Evans and Mike Williams, injured centre Manu Tuilagi and scrum half Ben Youngs were selected from Leicester.
Cole, Williams and Young meet up for a three-day training camp this week in Brighton as part of a group of 37 players preparing for the the Old Mutual Wealth Series against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia.
The final squad will be announced on October 26.