RUGBY: Leicester Tigers show they can still be a force in Europe with win over Racing 92
It was chaotic, frantic, furious and ferocious at times on Sunday but Leicester Tigers showed real spirit to overcome one of the real powerhouses in European rugby.
Tigers beat last year’s beaten Champions Cup finalists Racing 92, 27-17 at a rocking Welford Road.
This was more of a Leicester performance of old - it was a long way from being perfect, but it was full of intent and purpose and got the job done against the reigning French Top 14 champions.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “I don’t think we were as poor as people made out last week and I don’t think we were as good tonight as people will make out.”
With Munster beating Glasgow 38-17 at an emotional Thomond Park on Saturday, following the death of their head coach Anthony Foley last week, Pool One is wide open. Three teams have each won a game, with Racing the only side not to have registered points, although you would expect them to when they play their postponed match at home against Munster at some point.
Leicester sit in third place with four points having lost 42-13 away at Glasgow in the opening round of the competition.
Tigers started in blistering fashion, playing with a confidence which does not belie their current predicament. Having won a penalty Owen Williams kicked for the corner and Tigers drove for the line. After they were stopped illegally, with the referee playing advantage, they attacked through the backs. Matt Toomua drove for the line but was stopped inches short, but quick ball and a quick delivery from Ben Youngs saw Brendon O’Connor score with an acrobatic finish in the corner.
However Dan Carter pulled back three points and then specialist distance kicker Goosen missed from all of 50 yards.
Owen Williams then missed for Leicester but he made amends with two successful efforts and gave Leicester an 11-3 lead at the break.
It was the very least they deserved as they had out-played Racing. Tigers were frantic in their work, using their better mobility to run the huge Racing pack around. But for everything they did well, mistakes soon followed, ruining their continuity.
But the home side’s much maligned defence was outstanding and the Welford Road crowd appreciated it as well, chanting as Leicester raced up in an organised line and repelled the French attacks, which for the most part were more muscular than unpredictable.
However after the break Test rugby’s record points scorer Dan Carter showed class is permanent, as he went on a one man mission to drag Racing back into the game.
The former All Black scored a world class try nine minutes into the second half, taking the ball in the wide channel and dummying his way past four Leicester defenders to get to the line.
Think the second Test of the 2005 Lions tour, when Carter put in one of the most stunning fly-half performances ever seen, scoring 33 points including two tries.
The veteran can no longer do that for 80 minutes but he can still produce moments of magic.
Only a great tackle from Mathew Tait, who had a strong game at outside centre having come under increasing criticism recently, stopped Carter from scoring a second try of the game midway through the second half.
Tait just managed to drag the Kiwi down an inch short of the line.
There were some eyebrows raised when Owen Williams was swapped for Freddie Burns after 54 minutes. But the former England international showed his worth with a 16 point cameo performance, scoring what proved to be the game-winning try when he intercepted a pass from scrum half Maxime Machenaud inside his own 22 and went the length-of-the-field to score with a swan dive.
Juan Imhoff still had time to cross for Racing but it was a case of job done for Leicester.
Cockerill said: “Mentally and physically we were very good, the supporters were very good as well.”
“The crowd got behind us because we gave them something to cheer about. We’ve probably been waiting a while for an all-round 80-minute performance like that.
“Against a very good Racing side, we defended well at the set-piece, the attitude across the board was fantastic. We fronted up and played very well.
“I’m delighted with the performance and the result obviously, and denying them anything from the game is important. Racing have a backline with world-class players, they are a very good side and they caused us some problems, but by and large we dealt with it pretty well.”
“The willingness to put bodies on the line was very good.”
“Our effort to get back and make those tackles was great.”
Leicester will need to do the same when they take on the much tougher task of beating the current European and Aviva Premiership champions Saracens at Allianz Park on Saturday.
They will probably have to do so without full back Telusa Veainu and lock Dom Barrow, who both took knocks to the head on Sunday and centre Matt Toomua who appeared to twist his knee during the first half.