An absorbing victory over Wasps at the Ricoh Arena means Leicester Tigers are within touching distance of the play-offs. Here's how they did it.
If ever an 80-minute performance epitomised a club – its values, ethos and ingrained traditions – it was Leicester Tigers’ 26-21 defeat of Wasps at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday.
Bloody-mindedness, tenacity and perseverance are essential attributes for anyone rocking up in the East Midlands. You do not last too many arduous Oval Park training sessions without a blend of all three.
Put simply, those qualities yield results. When things click, comfortable victories come. Even when passes will not stick and an encounter becomes a dogfight, the side often scrapes to triumph. The common denominator is winning.
For so much of this season, Tigers’ displays have sat somewhere between disjointed and downright poor. Their tally of 35 tries is superior only to relegated London Welsh. Just five teams possess an inferior points difference.
But innate stubbornness and visceral graft have proved mightily effective. Richard Cockerill’s men arrived in Coventry – along with a healthy third of the 32,000 sell-out – with their play-off destiny in their own hands.
And, despite a red card for Seremaia Bai four minutes before half-time, the hosts – arguably the most exciting attackers in the division – could not prise Leicester’s title hopes out of an iron grasp.
Cockerill’s passions perennially press against surface tension. He lived every second of a compelling game and was blinking back tears when Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle.
Poignantly, as a scrum was re-set in the last minute, he growled: “This is the moment we train for. This is it.” Tigers actually conceded a penalty, but the sentiment held firm. Not since 2004 have they failed to make a Premiership semi-final.
Leicester went a way towards galvanising their rich history at the weekend. Here is how they ground it out.
1. Timely scrum superiority
The collective guts and backs-to-the-wall mentality on show made it rather tough to single out any one Tiger, but Dan Cole was outstanding at tighthead. Stuart Lancaster defines the term ‘world class’ as one of the top three on the planet in any given position. It is difficult to argue against Cole meriting such a moniker.
Anyway, here are three set-pieces that swung momentum towards Leicester. First up, watch Cole squeeze an infringement out of the excellent Matt Mullan at the opening scrum:
There are two tell-tale signs that Wasps are struggling to contain Tigers here. The posture of Lorenzo Cittadini is one. Opposite the strength of Logovi’i Mulipola, the Italian has straightened his legs, bracing rather than shuffling backwards:
Next, just before the scrum collapses, we can see the binding of hooker Carlo Festuccia break:
This comes as a result of Cole piling through. Though Mullan was pinpointed by the touch-judge, all three of the Wasps front row were in trouble. Leicester kicked to touch and scored from good field position.
Tigers have made a habit of eking out penalties on their own put-in. However, in the second half, there was an example of their prowess on opposition ball:
On the back of a long period soaking up Wasps runners, this play from Julian Salvi hauled Leicester back onto the front foot. It is an archetypal piece of openside opportunism. As the scrum wheels, he sees Nathan Hughes release his bind to pick up the ball in his left hand:
Of course, this ends the set-piece and eradicates an offside line, so Salvi can swoop. The Australian does so, forcing a knock-on:
Cole and co. then decimate the ensuing scrum to garner another penalty:
Holding a precarious 21-15 advantage at this stage, Tigers needed this effort to complement their physicality and hard-edged endeavours elsewhere.
2. Commanding the gain-line
There was a marked difference when the respective teams attacked on Saturday. Wasps were largely lateral – which we will come onto later – while Leicester were direct, figures like Mulipola careering into contact.
Early on, this sequence between Jordan Crane, Brad Thorn and the Youngs brothers, Ben and Tom, brought them from the 22 over halfway and illustrates how effective Tigers were at close quarters, winning collisions to break the advantage line:
There was no let-up in intensity when Wasps did come at Tigers on narrow angles around the ruck. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than on the final play of the game, as James Haskell went hard into midfield off the shoulder of replacement fly-half Alex Lozowski:
Marcos Ayerza is the man to make the match-clinching hit. The Argentinian spots the runner from his position as part of a well-drilled defensive line…
…and closes down the space before hurling himself into an awesome impact in a copybook body position to force the ball loose:
Such an abrasive attitude extended to Tigers’ phase-play.
3. Uncompromising continuity
As well as putting their bodies on the line in tackles and carries, the visitors were relentless at the ruck. The build-up to Vereniki Goneva‘s try, Leicester’s second, was a flawless example of muscular support play.
From a lineout on the Wasps 22, they were brutally efficient, smashing anyone to engage with the breakdown to the floor – and therefore out of the game. We catch up as Cole rumbles forward:
Following up, Jamie Gibson takes out Haskell…
…before Graham Kitchener deals with James Gaskell:
The pattern continued. Crane is the next to truck it up off Ben Youngs:
Again, Haskell threatens the ball and again he is taken out, this time by Tom Youngs:
Turning towards referee Barnes, the Wasps skipper is clearly frustrated, feeling that Tigers are unduly obstructing him and his teammates. Barnes replied, the ref mic picking up: “I can’t penalise them for clearing you out.”
So the robust practice continued as Bai barrelled close to the line:
Notice that Cole steps in to dispose of Ashley Johnson:
This paved the way for a lovely transfer from Freddie Burns to free Goneva:
Leicester were so clinical with their finishing, chalking up three tries to none. Their execution at the attacking breakdown was mirrored in defence.
4. Defensive breakdown – spoiling and stealing
Burns kicked Tigers’ first points from a penalty that set the tone for the match after Andrea Masi infringed:
Salvi is the focal man here and is cleverly positioned wide from the lineout to lead the chase of Burns’ fine clearance:
He makes the tackle, bounces to his feet and (although fortunate not to give a penalty away for not supporting his bodyweight) leads a counter-ruck:
Masi throws the ball back towards his colleagues and is pinged.
Salvi led Leicester in a dominant breakdown display, securing another penalty later as Haskell held on under a classic jackal:
But just as central to Tigers’ triumph were the subtleties that slowed down Wasps ball.
Gibson, who is heading to Northampton Saints next season in what might easily be the signing of the season, is a master of this.
Watch how the speed of Wasps’ phase-play is sapped here after Gibson downs Masi and, alongside Salvi, makes himself difficult to budge:
Another supreme piece of prickly spoiling to finish. Needing a try to remain in the title chase as the clock wound down, Wasps required precision. Pristine ruck ball would have helped.
Attempting to run it out of their own half, the last thing they want is for Cole to send a big boot into the tackle area, causing a ricochet that fell kindly into Tiger paws:
The action underlined a collective desire to impose themselves awkwardly on Wasps and adopt the role of bullies for an afternoon. That they dealt with a red card and still did so was remarkable.
5. Trust and red card reorganisation
As we have already seen, Leicester stood firm and pressed when Wasps took a narrow tack. When Dai Young‘s side went wide to their dangermen Daly and Christian Wade though, the Tigers drift was exceptional. No wonder defence coach Phil Blake was ecstatic afterwards.
In this instance, Alapati Leuia has broken free to get behind Leicester. There is space on the right, but a calm, cohesive slide stops the danger:
Slowing their pace, showing Wasps their outside shoulders and using the touchline as a teammate, Tigers execute this perfectly.
They did not switch off inside the ball either. Mathew Tait defended wonderfully all day and it is he who makes the last interception. From this screengrab, we can see how far across he gets:
When Bai received his marching orders, Leicester lost a teak-tough physical specimen in midfield and a breakdown menace. Even so, they coped manfully.
From the resultant penalty, Wasps went wide to attack their one-man advantage immediately. Watch how Tait and Goneva work together. They concede ground, but that is not a problem.
Tait tracks across to get Daly before Goneva strips the ball from Wade as he steps inside:
Of course, with Goneva moved into the centres, just Niall Morris and Adam Thompstone were left in the back field. The pendulum system of covering kicks became a two-man job.
With Morris up in the primary line, this clever grubber from Andy Goode so nearly unlocked Leicester. However, Thompstone had his buddy’s back:
A reverse angle shows the vast distance Thompstone must cover to beat Daly to the ball:
Such industry summed up the clash.
Wasps’ decision to play Tom Jones tune ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ as Tigers took the field backfired. Leicester Tigers could not have reinforced their identity more vigorously.
An East Midlands derby remains at Welford Road. Thanks to Exeter Chiefs‘ dramatic conquering of Allianz Park, Tigers need to win.
It represents a tough ask, but – even if adversity descends once more – they will feel right at home.
Thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage. You can purchase tickets to the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham here.