Tigers required a last second penalty from second half replacement David Mele to spare their blushes and return from Melrose with an 11-8 victory over Edinburgh. Tigers were wasteful in possession but committed in defence; two Goneva tries ruled out by a Scottish referee providing a gentle reminder of why serious games have neutral referees.
Cockerill named a multicultural starting line up with 9 different nationalities represented, if we count Barbieri as Canadian, and the globally assembled Tigers started brightly. The borders were bathed in sunshine as Tigers attacked through the forwards into the Edinburgh 22. Interplay between backs and forwards, Croft particularly to the fore, allowed Niall Morris to scythe towards the posts. The Irishman was tackled short but good retention by Sio & Croft let Ben Youngs whip the pass out to Seremaia Bai whose pop pass out of a dump tackle gave Mulipola an easy finish after just 10 minutes.
Freddie Burns was skew-if with his conversion attempt and generally failed to impress on his Leicester debut. Two promising positions were wasted with his indulgent chip kicks and a further simple penalty was cuffed right in the second half. Owen Williams will surely start against Newcastle unless Burns can find some better form against Cardiff next week.
Tigers fans will be worried as Geoff Parling was withdrawn after only 14 minutes with another head knock. It seemed innocuous at the time but so did last season’s that ruled him out of the semi-final. Harry Wells replaced him and impressed, taking full advantage of his second chance at Tigers. Bedford will be wondering when they will be getting their man back.
Tigers scrum struggled in the first half as Aniseko Sio seemed unable to stay low and was popped up more than once. Edinburgh missed a 17th minute penalty after Tigers struggled with an advancing Scottish scrum.
Burns made it 8-0 after 26 mins with a simple kick 5 metres out and in front of the posts. Tigers had turned down an earlier penalty to go for the corner and were rumbling well towards the line before Edinburgh refused to roll away. Ben Youngs wasted the advantage with a speculative wide pass to no one in particular.
The forwards were taking a battering from the Scots and Edinburgh was able to take their first real possession inside the Tigers 22. Stout defending denied them and Goneva looked to have grabbed a crucial interception, racing 95m for a second Tigers try, only for the Scottish referee to rule out his length of the field effort for a phantom offside.
Edinburgh took full advantage of their home based referee’s reprieve; Roddy Grant crashed over for a try following an impressive Edinburgh maul. A 14 point swing on the stroke of half time meant the home side trailed by a solitary point, 8-7, rather than 15-0.
As the sides swapped ends at half time the heavens opened and what had been a glorious day turned grey, wet and sodden. Edinburgh rang the changes, most notably Tom Heathcote at fly half, whilst Tigers replaced the ineffectual Sio with Riccardo Brugnara. The Italian shored up the scrum and made some noticeable carries in his 23 minute cameo, before giving way to Tom Bristow for the final efforts.
The rain badly affected the game, what had been a tight but high quality game descended into more handling errors and scrums as both sides struggled for their first half fluency. Tigers were again first to make waves with a neat grubber kick from Burns finding a charging Goneva to dot down. Again the home side were saved by some lamentable refereeing. Goneva’s score chalked off again for the phantom offside offence.
It is worth remembering that marginally better execution (or better refereeing) would have put Tigers 22-0 up rather than scrapping around at 8-7.
More subs were now made with Briggs, Balmain, Crane and Mele replacing Ghiraldini, Mulipola, Croft and Youngs. The new front row found more favour with the refereeing earning 62nd minute penalty bang in front of the posts and 22m out. As mentioned above Burns had left his kicking boots at home and shunted the ball right of the sticks.
Burns and Morris were subbed in the 64th minute to be replaced by Pohe and Smith, Fijian Bai moving to fly half. Without being harsh on Smith or Pohe both are more physical players and the back line suffered from the lack of subtlety and from the lack of kickers to clear the lines in defence.
The rain and reported gusting wind made life difficult for Edinburgh’s kickers too. The home side by now had their tail up and were asking Tigers all sorts of searching questions. Old fashioned fast paced forwards ruck play was to the fore for the Scots as Tigers defence struggled to turn ball over or stem the flow.
The home side missed a penalty on 68 minutes when Tigers were ruled to have gone off their feet then on 72 minutes Edinburgh were awarded a penalty for a midfield offside (not for Briggs excellent turnover at the same ruck it should be noted). Using his earlier effort as a length finder Tom Heathcote showed fellow Bathonian Burns how to do it nailing his kick through the middle from 35m out for Edinburgh to take the lead for the first time 10-7.
Tigers kick off did not go 10, though Edinburgh clearly played the ball first, so they were awarded the half way scrum and when the scrum collapsed Heathcote was given an opportunity to hammer the final nail into Tigers’ coffin. This time it was just too far though and Tigers were reprieved.
Now fully psyched up and raring to go Tigers tore into the Scottish defence but were found wanting as they could not break through. With the clocking ticking down Goneva was held up and turned over on the far the touchline on the Edinburgh 10m line. With that brilliant defence Edinburgh surely must have felt they had won it. All they had to do was secure the scrum and see out a phase, maybe two, to secure the win.
But Balmain and co. were not lying down. The Tigers pack, wary of the Scots tricks at the last scum, powered forward to disrupt the wonderfully named Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (perhaps a Spanish-Scottish ship building conglomerate?) at the base of the scrum.
Another scum and another huge effort from the Geordie bruiser and his mates earned Tigers a shot at redemption and avoiding a second embarrassing defeat in a week. The clock had gone past 80 and it was the last play. Frenchman David Mele stepped up to the task and drilled his kick, high and handsome it sailed through the posts to the delight of the huge travelling army of Tigers fans.
Cockerill will be pleased with the determination shown in defence and in those final scrums from the young props but will be worried by the form of Burns.
Tigers: Morris (Smith 63); Scully, Tuilagi, Bai, Goneva; Burns (Pohe 63), Youngs (Mele 56); Sio (Brugnara H/T(Bristow 63)), Ghiraldini (Briggs 52), Mulipola (Balmian 52); De Chaves, Parling (Wells 14), Croft (Crane 52), Salvi, Barbieri.
Scoring: 5-0 Mulipoa Try 10 mins;8-0 Burns Pen 26 mins; 8-7 Grant Try 40mins, Tonks Con; 8-10 Heatcote Pen 72 mins; 11-10 Mele Pen 80 mins.