Martin Castrogiovanni may have dominated the news agenda, but Marcos Ayerza won the on-field battle during Leicester Tigers' 25-21 defeat of Toulon on Sunday evening. We analyse the Puma's excellent display.
Despite the result, it was a Toulon player that hogged the Monday morning headlines following his team’s 25-21 loss in the first instalment of their electric European Champions Cup double-header at Welford Road this weekend.
Former Leicester Tigers favourite Martin Castrogiovanni had some grievances to air following his exit in the summer of 2013 and the hairy Italian tighthead hi-jacked Richard Cockerill’s press conference, launching into an astounding, expletive-ridden rant. Among other things, he underlined the fact that he had personally paid £100,000 to escape his contract and join Mourad Boudjellal’s band of superstars.
All in all, it was a bit sad. ‘Castro’ became a mightily charismatic cult hero during seven glittering seasons in England. As he so eloquently said himself, “a beautiful piece of my heart” resides in the East Midlands and he will forever love the area. For many fans, such affection is likely to remain mutual.
Cockerill responded to the verbal assault calmly, expressing his wish to one day share a beer with Castrogiovanni and reminisce about an unfortunate sequence of events. For all the commotion, he wanted to make one thing clear: Tigers have moved on.
The hosts’ dominant scrum, driven by a superb set-piece performance from Marcos Ayerza, helped Cockerill’s case there. Alongside Lions front-rowers Dan Cole and Tom Youngs, the Argentinean loosehead was fantastic.
Christmas is the season for punters to pick their World XVs, and Ayerza wears the number one shirt for many of them. Against Toulon, he brought industry and understanding in the loose to technical excellence as Leicester overturned the champions. Here is a run-down of his display.
This is an obvious place to begin. Ayerza has enjoyed ascendancy in just about every match for either club or country since the introduction of the new engagement laws. He really is a phenomenal exponent who senses weakness and piles through into the heart of the opposition set-piece. In the opening scrum of the game, he gave Owen Williams a simple chance for three points:
With pressure coming through Castrogiovanni, the Toulon scrum wheels around rapidly and disintegrates. It is an easy decision for Nigel Owens.
Just the other side of half-time, with the score locked at 13-13, there was a timely repeat that boosted Tigers:
Finally, we head to the 65-minute mark. Carl Hayman – a New Zealander whose reputation precedes him – has replaced Castrogiovanni. No matter:
Now, Ayerza deals in body angles. Often, he locates weakness by using his stout frame and low stance to burrow under his rival and subtly in towards the opposition hooker. An aerial view of the second of these scrums offers excellent insight:
Sometimes, this backfires. Owens penalised the Pumas once for failing to stay square. For Toulon’s second try, the unthinkable happened – a Leicester scrum was lost against the head:
Zooming in, we see that Ayerza’s angle is so drastic that Tom Youngs is perhaps impinged:
As the late penalty shows, Ayerza problem-solved over the course of the 80 minutes – a sure-fire sign of an experienced, outstanding player. Indeed, his class shone across the board.
This part of a prop’s job seems to be totally taken for granted. Nonethless, lifting jumpers is such a key skill. Watch how Jamie Gibson is propelled skyward to tap Guilhem Guirado’s throw back to Youngs. For good measure, Ayerza hits the ensuing ruck to complete the turnover:
This defensive role is all about disruption. However, Ayerza is also proficient as a cog in intricate attacking moves. Again, it is Gibson who is lifted.
This time though, in order to free up personnel for a mid-air transition to a secondary driving pod, Ayerza executes a one-man lift without support behind the jumper:
Evidently, this is explosive power and technique at work. From restarts – rightly considered a third set-piece these days – the Argentinean brings the same qualities.
‘Exit strategy’ is a modern-day, trendy term for an age-old concept – getting out of your half following a kick-off. Of course, the first assignment is securing the ball. Watch how Ayerza hurls Graham Kitchener high to claim before cleverly obstructing the chasing Bakkies Botha:
For any player regardless of position, defence in phase-play requires a certain mind-set. Essentially, it helps if you are innately tenacious. Here, with Toulon bearing down on a loose ball in the first half, Ayerza displays such attributes.
While he slips off Castrogiovanni as he dives at his old friend’s feet, his presence around the fringes stalls the attack long enough for Tigers to scramble back:
In terms of one-on-one tackling, Ayerza does not shirk anything either. Chris Masoe single-handedly dismantled Leicester in the 2013 Heineken Cup quarter-final. He is an hugely dangerous carrier. Still, the bristling All Black gets stopped dead on the gain-line in the second half:
Against a team who possess a breakdown nuisance-in-chief such as Steffon Armitage, support play and brawn at the breakdown are both vital. Should either of those lapse, cast-iron jackals and penalties are likely to rack up.
Early on, Ayerza set the tone for a remarkable man-marking appointment:
In pursuit of Ben Youngs’ half-break from the front of the lineout, Ayerza bides his time. He waits for a phase and then sees Armitage stalking:
He follows carrier Kitchener, judo throwing Armitage off his feet, away from the ball (circled in white) and therefore out of the game as a pilfering threat:
There were an incredible a series of similar plays in the second half, each one nullifying the threat of an arch turnover merchant. This one comes as Tigers break from there own half.
Then minutes later as the hosts pressed on the Toulon 22. Brad Thorn is the one trucking up here:
And finally two phases on, once more tailing the effervescent Thorn:
It is hard to overstate the importance of Ayerza’s work here. Armitage’s influence was limited to a single ruck penalty. Given how much havoc the openside has consistently caused since moving to the south of France in 2011, that is a very positive outcome.
Even in a game that often resembled a fractious arm wrestle, Ayerza’s portfolio of contributions was massive. Still, he eked out two extremely effective pieces of play with ball in hand.
First, there was this rumble, aided by a fine ‘leech’ from the Leicester forwards. Watch the sidestep before contact to shift the tackler too:
Second, we were treated to a bump and roll with a delicate offload to Kitchener thrown in. As it turned out, this was one of the better passes Tigers executed across the 80 minutes:
Ayerza took his leave on 70 minutes, replaced by Michele Rizzo. Fittingly, his very last action was selfless and discreet but constructive:
Williams was another integral performer for Leicester and this left-footed grubber is gorgeous. However, watch how Ayerza busts a gut to steam around the corner and hold the fringe defence:
Even with over an hour of graft behind him, Ayerza does not skimp on any details. He even holds his hands up for that extra bit of deception – therefore creating an extra fraction of a second for Williams. Such intelligence, plus tremendous ability and work ethic, make Ayerza the player he is.
With Toulon scorned and scathing, Leicester must be even better to prevail at the Stade Mayol this Saturday. They will be underdogs, but confident ones. It should be an absolutely fascinating afternoon.