Sunday, 28 December 2014

Tiger the Comeback Kings as Sale jump the Shark

Phew.  What a game.  Tigers inept and inspired within the same 80 minutes as this roller coaster hit the heights and plumbed the depths.  Tigers produced the second biggest comeback in club history to secure a vital 5 points and keep our dreams of a home semi final on life support for a few more weeks.

Tigers spent a grand total of 3 minutes in the lead.  But like was said last week it doesn't matter.  We could have won and this time we did.  Julian Salvi was credited with the winning try; a huge heaving effort from forwards and backs alike saw Ayerza and Bai clamp on to the Australian and drive him home.  Fantastic composure from all involved, as not only did the forwards grind it over but Benjamin & the other backs remained alive drawing men away from the breakdown, perhaps creating that small gap.

To the match itself Sale were much the better side during the opening 50 minutes, our wide defence was cut to ribbons by a fast and vivid Sharks attack, only heroic goal line defending kept the score to 30 points.  

The first try was scored down Sale's right wing.  Sam Tuitupou took the ball deep from Cipriani on our 22m line, shrugged off Freddie Burns then Tommy Bell's pretty ineffectual tackles to storm to the 5m line, dragged down by Crane and Benjamin.  Sale then battered the line.  Will Addison took out Miles Benjamin off the ball to open up a gap which Chris Cusiter spotted to dive over for the opening score.

Tigers attack by contrast was more leaden but did eventually get over the line.  A fantastic trademark stepping burst from Goneva freed Benjamin to stride deep into the Sale 22, it seemed to take an age going side to side and the chance looked lost when Ghiraldini was being driven backwards.  But Burns' quick thinking ripped the ball free and floated a short pass over a Sale man to Crane.  Crane did the simple pass well to Bai who stormed over to level the score.

A Cipriani penalty for a rare Leicester infringement gave the lead back to Sale and Tigers could have been further behind but for Jamie Gibson forcing a knock on from Mike Haley as the full back tried to ground the ball for a try.

Tigers however took back the lead after an aggressive decision to kick a penalty to touch rather than at goal.  A quick maul was, perhaps, inching forward when Youngs spotted the gap.  For my money he was in himself but chose to feed Tait on the wing who just nipped in.  After consultation with the TMO the try was awarded and Burns nailed the difficult touchline conversion.

This sparked Sale into a spell of sustained pressure and excellence as they scored 22 points in 15 minutes.  Will Addison scored almost immediately after Tait; taking advantage of Tommy Bell being caught ball watching he slid wide of the full back for the easy score.  With the first try as well it really was not Bell's day on his return to his former club.

Tigers were reeling at this point, Sale cutting loose in front of their biggest ever crowd.  Thankfully one move was ended as Eiffion Lewis-Roberts the gargantuan prop was the man free on the over lap and Tait could lasso the big man at the knees.

Sale joined Tigers in turning down a stream of kickable penalties as they went for the kill.  Eventually Gibson was sent to the sin bin, harshly as he was pinned at the bottom of the ruck, and Sale again went for the drive.  Tigers withstood the pressure for a time but Nathan Hines was soon enough driven over for a 25-15 half time lead.

Quickly into the second half Sale extended their lead and secured the try bonus point to boot.  Burns kicked from the shadow of his posts just barely finding touch allowing Sale to go quickly.  The Sale winger's boot was clearly in the field of play when he took it and the lineout should have been brought back but referee Wigglesworth was at the mercy of his linesman who did not make the call.

Haley shimmied his way to the 22m tight to the touchline, Tait and Bell miscommunicated as the small blindside was clearly theirs to defend and that wily old fox Tuitupou took advantage ambling over for what seemed like the knock out score.

15 points down and Tigers were lost, down beat and out for the count.  Only once before in the 134 year history of England's most storied club had "The Death or Glory Boys" dug themselves out of a hole bigger than 14 points.

But as Rocky Balboa rises bloodied and battered from the canvas asking for more the Tigers never gave up.  On 50 minutes Gibson was re-introduced with Ayerza, Tom Youngs and Balmain, giving Tigers fresh impetus.  Shortly after Thompstone replaced Bell, with Tait back at home at full back.  

Tigers kicked again to the corner.  Again it seemed to take an age of going left to right but eventually the half chance was created; Burns to Tait, the half jink and on to Benjamin with no room to manoeuvre but the Birmingham born winger dazzled the defence with a stop and go.  He slighted to the right, then blasted past them on the left beating four men to squeeze into the corner with only millimetres to spare.

Belief was building now.  But Sale were not quite in their shells just yet; they burst through the middle for the clinching score.  Mat Tait as ever is Tigers weather vane, where his form goes so does the team, and his form was bubbling to brilliance as he ran the channel and blocked down the final pass in a surely try scoring Sale move, only to then pounce on the loose ball to eradicate the danger.

With Freddie Burns pulled after yet another midfield chip and chase horror ball, the calming presence of Owen Williams was introduced.  The Welshman steered the Tigers around the park noticeably running the ball from deeper and kicking less frequently and more importantly less aimlessly.  With the game now being firmly played in the Sale half and the home side leaking penalties it was inevitable that Williams would eventually be given a chance to cut the deficit to five.  Belief was now coursing through the Tigers veins.

Sam Harrison was introduced at around the same time as Williams and added spark and pace to Tigers attack at just the time that Sale were tiring and perhaps starting to think about their first victory over Tigers in 11 games and over five and a half years.

The clock was beginning to run dangerously low and Tigers had to decide between aiming for 2 more penalties or going for the try.

In the end the decision was made for us as Sale did not infringe again until only four minutes were remaining; Will Addison again taking liberties with off the ball contact, this time taking out our support man and forcing Harrison into the ruck to secure the ball, thus losing crucial quick ball in a great position.  Wigglesworth spotted the offence and showed no hesitation in brandishing the yellow card for the second time in the match.

To the corner they went, with new man Peterson brought into the fray, De Chaves won the lineout and was driven.  Tigers broke off the side and towards the posts.  Gibson, Barbieri, Bai.  Peterson, Barbieri, Balmain.  They all tried and were repulsed. Then Salvi lead a charge featuring Bai and Ayerza as his lieutenants, with Gibson adding his weight too.  Standing behind the posts we could just see Bai's mocha head pop through the ruck and several orange shirts belly flop over the line.

Delight, relief, joy!  It was given!  The vociferous and partisan Sale crowd were appalled and Owen Williams did not exactly help matters milking every last one of his allotted 90 seconds, and then some, to kill as much of the clock as possible.

It was not yet over though as Tigers muffed the kick off and had to defend their lead for two agonising minutes until Leota knocked on to end a topsy turvey , a glorious, a memorable match.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A visit from St Johan, The Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The wage slips were hung by the ledgers with care,
In the hopes that St Johan soon would be there.

The players were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Kruger-Rands danced in their heads.
And Mark in his ‘Kerchief and Edd in his salary cap,
Had just settled their accounts for a long winter’s nap.

When out in the press there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the boardroom to see what was the matter.
Away to Microsoft Windows I flew like a flash,
And wrote a stinging press release in a dash.

The moon on the breast of the new fallen dough
Gave the lustre of lucre to the objects below.
What, to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature South African, and thirteen tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively, quick as a swan,
I knew in a moment it must be St Johan!
More rapid than Ashton his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and Mexican Waved, and called them by name!

Now Morne! Now, Caroline! Now, Stephen & Dominic! Now, Nicholas, Now Nigel! Come On, see you all!
On Francois, On Clement, On Faffa & Lucas, On Mitesh, on Eddie & On Stephen Hall!
To the top of the Prem! To the top of the wall!
Now stash away! Stash Away! Stash away all!

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with regulations, salaries to the sky!
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With a sleigh full of South African bank accounts, and St Johan too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Johan came with some pounds.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to foot,
And his trophies were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of pound notes he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a spiv, just opening his pack.

His coins-how they twinkled! His pennies how merry!
His cheques were like roses, his notes like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the crunch of his tenners as crisp as the snow.

The stump of his pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old Boer,
And I asked for some players , I just wanted more!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the player's South African bank accounts, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Something special is happening at Saracens, and to all a good-night!"

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Derby Day Defeat

Tigers suffered a derby day defeat despite Northampton spending 56 minutes with a man less following Dylan Hartley's dismissal for an ugly elbow to Matt Smith's face.  Tigers and Saints scored three tries each but Stephen Myler was more effective with the boot slotting 8 points to Williams & Burns combined effort of 4 points.

But to lay the blame solely on the kickers would be wrong.   Tigers defence was shocking in the second half, with a man advantage Saints created overlaps at will, and the home side dominated both possesion and territory.  ESPN's "Match Stats" records Saints having 76% of territory in the second half (what that exactly means I couldn't tell you but its not likely to be good.).

The kicking strategy from hand was simply not good enough.  With a man advantage you should be able to kick to land not hand, as the old saying goes.  If the kick is not on then there must be space somewhere in the defensive line.  Instead Williams' kicks were almost always fielded by Ken Pisi, George North or James Wilson; not a trio you want running back at you.

Both times we got the ball into their 22 we scored tries relatively easily.  But we barely had the ball inside their half let alone their 22.

The first 20 minutes was Tigers best spell, dominating the scrum but giving away very soft line out penalties that only J.P. Doyle will know what for.  From a terrific Salvi turnover Tigers spread the ball wide left with Goneva making inroads to the 5m line.  Northampton did well to bring him down but cynically infringed to slow the ball down.  On the advantage play Smith drove Hartley out with a text book ruck clearance, the Saints captain took exception to this and after the whistle slammed the point of his elbow up Smith's nose.

Doyle's initial reaction was, baffling, only a yellow card; claiming it was a forearm to the jaw.  Sean Davey, the TMO, insisted that it be upgraded to a red.  When Sean Davey is having to tell the referee to stop being anti-Tigers you know its going to be a bad day.

Dorian West stormed down to the touchline to harangue the fourth official, I await with bated breath the e-mail campaign from the Saints fans offended by his behaviour.

Saints sacrificed centre Stephenson rather than a forward but it made no difference as Tigers mercilessly drove the home side over for a penalty try.  Unfortunately that was where the mercilessness ended.  Some weak refereeing in the face of a home crowd gave Myler the chance to nibble into the lead and Doyle evened the numbers up for ten minutes after the softest high tackle call I have ever seen on Tom Croft.

Tigers lead 7-6 at the break and were surely confident of the win.  But in the second half we were out psyched, out muscled, out thought and out fought.  Northampton wanted this and the triffling matter of missing Hartley was not going to stop them.

Tigers lost Blaine Scully to injury at half time and with him went a lot of defensive solidness and our energy.  He is not the perfect winger, I could not see him making the kind of break Benjamin did for the third try, but he energises those around him.  It was down Benjamin's wing that Northampton scored all three of their tries.

The first was whilst Croft was still off; North took the ball at first receiver and cut out 4 Tigers defenders with a beautiful pass, Ma'afu fed Waller who dummied his way past Benjamin and over the line.  For me Benjamin has to smash Waller and see if the prop can make the testing final pass.

Wilson missed the conversion and the game settled down for 15 minutes.  Freddie Burns was on for Matt Smith, booed from the field by the Saints fans for his crime of being assaulted, and made a delightful shimmying break through the midfield to the 5m line.  Tigers recycled quickly and Goneva burst through two ineffectual tackles to give Tigers the lead 12-11 on 60 minutes.  Williams missed the testing wide conversion.

Saints struck back with a piece of clinical finishing.  Myler spotted the blindside overlap; drew in Benjamin as the last man and manufactured a cheeky off load that I'd doubt you'd see in a text book.  Foden raced away using the supporting North as a decoy to create confusion in Tait's mind before having the strength to hold off Ben Youngs.

At this point it looked like Saints were going to race away to a big winning margin.  But Tigers dug in.  And kept kicking.  And kept kicking.  It was baffling, frustrating and stupid.  And it worked.  

Mat Tait chased his own up and under.  The lithe full back tackled Foden and in the ruck slipped the ball on our side.  Crane fumbled, but backwards, I think, I'm sure, in clearing the ball wide but it mattered not.  It went to Benjamin on half way.  He went inside.  He went outside.  He scorched past Phil Dowson and curved into the 22 beating more men.  He couldn't quite make it but Youngs was there quickly and whipped it away to Burns and through Ghiraldini onto Goneva.  Burns nailed the conversion from the same spot Williams missed the first and Tigers had the 3 point lead with ten minutes to go.

Northampton huffed and the they puffed.  Could we do it?  We were holding, just barely but we were holding them.   We couldn't get the ball and they were steaming forwards, their big beasts of Manoa, Lawes, Dickinson and Burrell were coming to the fore.

They got a penalty and kicked for the corner.  If we could hold the maul we could win the match.  But the Saints were confident.  You could see it in them.  Flowing from us folding in the semi, they fancied it.  I fancied us but there was just a niggle.  Just a random thread hanging loose.

We smashed back the maul.  Yes.  They came left.  We held.  They came left.  We didn't.  Burrell took three men to tackle him.  We were sucked in.  Again.  And they scored through Elliott.

We didn't deserve to win, but that's not the point.  We could have won with 3 minutes of better defending, or better kicking.

Tigers are now 11 points off second place with 12 games to go.  The comeback has to start now.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Tigers tamed in Toulon

Tigers unbeaten streak of 6 competitive games came crashing to a halt with a dispiriting defeat in Toulon.  The defending double European Champions avenged their loss at Welford Road 6 days previous with a blistering opening 20 minutes where they romped to a 16-0 lead.  Tigers held the Red and Blacks from then onwards with the final 60 odd minutes yielding only seven more points, the game finished 23-8.

This was Tigers worst defeat since October's calamity at Kingsholm; and bore similar hallmarks.  A trip to a famously partisan atmosphere, a poor start snowballing into a unassailable lead before a gritty second half keeping the score respectable.

Tigers were simply out muscled for the first try.  A succession of negative tackles that halted the man but only after he gained ground eventually led to Ali Williams crashing over to the right hand side of a goal line ruck.  Some commentators have claimed there were "no missed tackles" in this move.  Bollocks.  If your tackle from 2 metres out hasn't stopped him grounding the ball then to me it's pretty obviously missed.

Whilst Toulon never got that momentum rolling again they were constantly knocking Tigers back in both attack and defence.  Tigers forwards were unable to gain ground and referee George Clancy's more classical (read lax) interpretation of tackler's release and Tigers inability to ruck them clear contributed to a stream of slow ball and penalties for holding on as Basteraud in particular wreaked havoc.  

The lack of a forward platform was exacerbated by a poor day with the boot from Owen Williams.  The usually reliable Welshman was off target with two of three kicks, costing the Tigers 5 points in the first half.  Were he successful with those kicks the half time score would have been 16-10 and if still a slim chance of the win then definitely the chance of the losing bonus point.  Williams punting was also askew with several kicks straight into touch and one penalty kicked dead.  The Welsh wizard did spark Tigers sole try, with a powerful burst up the middle setting up Jamie Gibson to put Blaine Scully away to the corner.

With Ulster losing away to Llanelli second place in the group is achievable but no bonus points in four games has left us behind in the race for one of three best runners up spots.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Team for Toulon named

Tigers head to Toulon this weekend looking to cause a major upset against the defending double European Champions in their own backyard.  Richard Cockerill has made three changes to the side that won at Welford Road on Sunday whilst Bernard Laporte, his Toulon counterpart, has reacted to Castrogiovanni's outburst by dropping the combustible Italian.

All three changes for Leicester come to the pack that laid last weekend's winning foundation.  In the front row Tom Youngs swops places with Italian international Leonardo Ghiraldini; at lock Graham Kitchener misses out injured giving Geoff Parling his first start since September; in the back row Robert Barbieri starts only his 4th game for the club as Jordan Crane is benched.

This means that Ben Youngs and Owen Williams continue at half back, with Matt Smith staying in the midfield and Goneva on the wing.  The back line is rounded out with Allen at centre, Blaine Scully on the wing and Mat Tait looking to match the performance of his last visit to Toulon from full back.

The bench sees a 6-2 forwards-backs split to accommodate the return to fitness of Tom Croft.  The Lion joins Tom Youngs, Sebastian de Chaves & Jordan Crane as additions to the bench whilst Miles Benjamin misses out.  Freddie Burns & Sam Harrison provide cover for the backs.

Toulon have reacted to their defeat by also making three changes.  Out go Castrogiovanni, Australian wing Drew Mitchell & Georgian flanker Mamuka Gorgodze.  In comes Leigh Halfpenny, South African World Cup winner Juan Smith and young Georgian tyro Levan Chilachava.  Former Bath man Michael Claassens comes onto the bench for Eric Esconde.

15 Mat Tait
14 Blaine Scully
13 Matt Smith
12 Anthony Allen
11 Vereniki Goneva
10 Owen Williams
9 Ben Youngs (c)
1 Marcos Ayerza
2 Leonardo Ghiraldini
3 Dan Cole
4 Brad Thorn
5 Geoff Parling
6 Jamie Gibson
7 Julian Salvi
8 Robert Barbieri

16 Tom Youngs
17 Michele Rizzo
18 Fraser Balmain
19 Sebastian de Chaves
20 Jordan Crane
21 Tom Croft
22 Sam Harrison
23 Freddie Burns

RC Toulon:
15 Leigh Halfpenny
14 Delon Armitage
13 Mathieu Bastareaud
12 Maxime Mermoz
11 Bryan Habana
10 Nicolas Sanchez
9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde
1 Alexandre Menini
2 Guilhem Guirado
3 Levan Chilachava
4 Bakkies Botha
5 Ali Williams
6 Juan Smith
7 Steffon Armitage
8 Chris Masoe (c)

16 Jean-Charles Orioli
17 Florian Fresia
18 Carl Hayman
19 Mamuka Gorgodze
20 James O'Connor
21 Jocelino Suta
22 Michael Claassens
23 Romain Taofifenua

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Guess Who's Back?

Tigers got their European Champions Cup campaign back on track this Sunday after dispatching double Euro & defending French Champions Toulon 25-21.  Welsh wizard Owen Williams was the star of the show slotting a sumptuous 20 points from the boot, as well as providing Toulon with their first try courtesy of a gift wrapped interception for Springbok Bryan Habana.

Tigers raced in a 13-0 lead after only 20 minutes as the Tigers ferocious defence forced key errors from a harried Toulon team.  Fast defence forced Bakkies Botha into a poor pass hacked on by Anthony Allen, Toulon recovered possession but from the ruck Owen Williams charged down Drew Mitchell’s attempted clearance to force a 5m scrum; the reunion between Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni was won conclusively by the Argentinean Ayerza forcing a penalty which Williams simply slotted.  Tigers lead was doubled quickly; Castro’s late entry to a ruck forcing the referee to reverse the penalty previously awarded to Toulon.

Similarly the first try was born from Toulon errors.  A series of areal ping pong seemed to have been won with Delon Armitage’s excellent clearance but Mat Tait’s hard chase of his own kick forced Sebastian Tilous-Borde into a sloppy pass to a shell shocked Mitchell.  The Australian simply went M.I.A. allowing Tom Youngs to sweep onto the ball and set Brad Thorn up for his first try in Tigers colours.

The 13-0 lead was short lived however, directly from the kick off Tigers were held up in a maul forcing a scrum and this time it was Toulon with the penalty which Nicolas Sanchez comfortably slotted.  Tigers were now the ones making errors, Jordan Crane’s pass and Mat Tait’s fumble gave Toulon terrific ball under the posts.  Were it not for Tait’s magnificent tackle a try was sure to be scored.  As it was an inevitable penalty was conceded as Toulon battered at the Tigers line with Sanchez again on the mark.

The scores were levelled when Williams flung his fateful pass, over the head of Salvi, too short for Kitchener it was just right for Habana to pounce.

Williams had also missed a tricky kick from right in front of the Crumbie just previously and missed a further testing penalty on the stroke of half time but made amends early in the second half.  Mat Tait’s scudding low kick found touch deep inside the 22, after forcing a knock on in the lineout the Tigers pack roared, marching Toulon backwards at a rate of knots to earn a simple three points for Williams to slot.

The next scrum was not to be so successful.  Tigers failed to hook the ball cleanly, the ball ricocheting off the front row’s shins into the Toulon side, Tilous-Borde caught Jamie Gibson unawares leaving Goneva with an impossible two on one to defend.  Ironically it was serial offender Mitchell who had the run in for the five.

Facing a tricky touchline conversion on Welford Road’s boggy side Sanchez went under the ball, floating the kick, just, short and wide.  This left Tigers within a score and was to prove crucial in the final reckoning.

Tigers were resilient.  And ambitious.  On loose turnover ball Tigers gained a fortuitous penalty for a high tackle on Ben Youngs.  The captain seeing the gap went quickly only a few yards from his line, the momentum gained another penalty and this one could be kicked deep into Toulon territory.  Some sure possession rugby was perhaps not so inspired but drew the necessary penalty and Williams made no mistake to ease Tigers back into the lead they had previously held for 40 minutes.

Tigers were really on song now, pinning Tilous-Borde into the corner and gaining the 5m attacking lineout.  Tigers’ forwards drove the ball over the line but never fully having it controlled failed to ground it, instead letting themselves be shunted to touch in goal and a relieving 22m drop out.

Toulon then wasted a golden chance inside the Tigers own 22 when they conceded the penalty for sealing off; Williams’ mighty boot bypassed the midfield and gave Tigers a lineout at the other end of the pitch.  Tigers were more patient than their opponents, again forcing the clumsy error from the Toulon defence.  This time it was Georgian goliath Mamuka Gorgodze getting pinned on the wrong side of a ruck.

Toulon though are not European & Top 14 champions for nothing.  Breaking through a quick tap from Ali Williams they played quickly and fluently moving into the Tigers 22 with ease, the move was only halted by a soft offside error from sub Robert Barbieri.  The Canadian-Italian flanker was offside after making an earlier tackle giving Sanchez the easiest opportunity to cut the arrears to a single point.

Tigers were calm though, Williams’ low slung kick again pinning Toulon deep into their own half before his up and under was claimed by Scully.  The kicking game may not be to everyone’s taste but was executed well enough so that when Bryan Habana risked an early charge at Ben Youngs the penalty was inches within the Welshman’s range.

The drama carried well over the 80 minutes; not only did Tigers make a meal of finishing off the game, requiring a Toulon knock on with 10 seconds left and again after losing that scrum, but also Martin Castrogiovanni’s expletive ridden tirade at Richard Cockerill’s behaviour over his transfer between the two clubs and Delon Armitage’s excursions which seem both many and varied at this point in time.

The off field stuff can wait for another day, the important points from Sunday were the four that Tigers bagged and perhaps the casual one that Toulon took with them too.