RUGBY: Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester youngster show their quality at Bath
The Anglo-Welsh Cup may be a development competition for most teams in the Aviva Premiership, Leicester included, but that should not undermine the Tigers’ young guns’ win at The Rec on Friday night.
The sold out crowd certainly thought it was a match worth the ticket price, and so did the few travelling Leicester fans as the East Midlands club returned home with a 21-20 victory.
More importantly it was the nature of the victory which can bring encouragement to the Tigers faithful.
Bath took the lead through Jack Wilson thanks to some gorgeous handling from Adam Hastings, son of the famous British and Irish Lion Gavin.
Incidentally another Lion, Tom Croft, made his return to action for Leicester off the bench for the first time this season. But while Bath showed some slick handling in the backs, Leicester wrestled control of the match through the forwards, with the indomitable man of the match Harry Thacker at the fore.
We have seen little of him this season but Thacker looked an even stronger version of the player who impressed last season.
Bath young number eight Zach Mercer, who caught the eye himself, was full of praise for the opposition skipper.
He said: “Harry Thacker, what a player he is and he just kept coming at us – we didn’t have any answers.”
Inevitably it was Thacker who got Leicester on the front foot for their opening try of the match, and then several phases later big Welshmen Luke Hamilton drove through the tackle of former Gloucester man Elliott Stooke to crash over the line. It was a fine display of power from a side who have been lacking some extra muscle.
With Leicester on a role, some fine handling, and a great miss-pass from Freddie Burns - the type which sometimes get picked off, but when they work open up sides, set winger George Catchpole free to finish in the corner.
Barring the returning Croft, Burns was arguably the most experienced, accomplished player on the pitch, having won five caps for England. He looked it as well, chipping in a vital 11 points with the boot.
There is little chance of Burns regaining his place in the national set-up with Owen Farrell, along with Saracens team mates Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, being named on World Rugby’s shortlist for Player of the Year. They join All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles on the shortlist along with Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip who must still be celebrating after his national side beat New Zealand 40-29 on Saturday, for the first time in 111 years of playing each other.
However Burns looks back to his confident best and could well find the fly-half jersey at Tigers his.
Itoje is the perfect embodiment of what the Anglo-Welsh Cup can do for a young developing player. He was the last man to lift the trophy with Saracens back in 2014, after the tournament took a season off because of the fixture congestion caused by the Rugby World Cup last season.
Thacker said: “We came away with a win which is what we came down for, we had a few experienced bodies in that squad who were able to guide us and they did a good job,”
“The youth that came in showed heart in bucketloads.
“When you’ve got a guy like Freddie [Burns] who can pull those strings and put them in the right places it makes a lot of difference, and for us to look up and see we’re in the right areas of the pitch is a good boost. On nights like this it’s invaluable.
“We showed a lot of heart towards the end and we just showed we want to play for this shirt and this badge.”
Tigers, led by Geordan Murphy, instead of Richard Cockerill, to aid the Irishmen’s development, gave debuts to Academy product George Worth and Argentina international Tomas Leonardi, while South Africa international Cilliers and Fred Tuilagi started on the bench and both featured.
Remarkably Tuilagi, became the eighth member of his Samoan family to pull on a first-team Tigers jersey as Leicester manage to maintain a family feeling even in the modern era. There have now been 23 father and son combinations to play for the club.
Number eight Fred, who featured in the sevens this summer, follows father Freddie, uncles Henry, Alesana, Anitelea, Vavae and Manu, and older brother Brian.
Tuilagi was not the only one with a family connection on the field, both Matt Smith and Harry Thacker have followed their fathers’ Ian ‘Dosser’ Smith and Troy into the Leicester first team, While Harry’s younger brother Charlie was on the bench.
It was debutant Worth who made a real impact from full back however as he made a round-high 113 metres for Leicester – beating Worcester Warriors and England man Chris Pennell (105) in making the most distance in the first round of the competition. Up next for Leicester is a home tie in the Anglo-Welsh up with the Newport Gwent Dragons on Saturday.
While at the same time Ben Youngs and Dan Cole and have been included in the 25-man wider squad, that will be in action with England at Twickenham against South Africa for the first of the Old Mutual Wealth Series Autumn Internationals.