Tigers secured their 9th successive Premiership semi final courtesy of a 5 try bonus point trashing of a lacklustre Wasps side that slide out of the Heineken Cup qualification places. Tigers tries came from a Ben Youngs brace, Graham Kitchener, Rob Hawkins and Adam Thompstone. Wasps try was a consolation solo effort from Elliot Daly when the match as a contest was already over.
Tigers made three “late” changes, definitely not pre planned early in the week, as Steve Mafi, Graham Kitchener and Rob Hawkins replaced Tom Croft, Geoff Parling and Tom Youngs. This made four changes from the side defeated in Toulon and a nice amount of rotation.
Billy Vunipola continued where he left off in the last Tigers Wasps game giving away the first kickable penalty after 8 minutes as he lazily flopped over the ball. Luckily for the Saracens bound bruiser the strong wind coming over the Crumbie blew it off course with a mighty gust. The wind was playing havoc with the kickers in the warm up and caught Flood more than once today.
Vunipola was again the culprit as Flood pushed Tigers to 3-0 on 13 minutes. The number 8 dummied and went from a defensive ruck with no support and the Milton Keynes Mountain swallowed him whole, referee Doyle judging Vunipola to be holding on under pressure from Ed Slater. The wind tried its trickery again but this time Flood was wise to it and snuck the ball inside the right hand post.
Flood’s second penalty came from a very harsh call from referee Doyle; Nicky Robinson was ruled to have deliberately knocked the ball on when his attempted interception was unsuccessful. The ball barely went forward at all and Robinson’s only contact with it was to tip it up to try and make a juggling catch. Quite who has told referees that interceptions are to be penalised out of the game is beyond me as all we are left with is players getting cards for doing little more than having eyes bigger than their bellies whilst wanton thuggery goes unpunished.
Tigers’ first try came from a lucky break as Ben Youngs’s clearing box gained the thinnest of touches from a Wasps hand gaining Tigers a line out well within their enemy’s territory. Tony Allen made yet another yard gaining carry through the midfield traffic before Mat Tait switched the play from left to right freeing Steve Mafi; the Tongan Octopuss used his flowing limbs to off load to Niall Morris coming like a steam train on his left. Morris took the ball to the 5 metre line and Mafi took the ball up a further few metres before Flood put Hawkins to a yard out in the corner of the CAT stand. Scrum half Charlie Davies had taken up his position guarding the left hand flank of the ruck but the merest hint of a look to the blindside made him shift round to the other side; that opened the hole for his opposite number Ben Youngs to dive through the gap and claim the first try of the match.
Tigers struck again just 4 minutes later as Graham Kitchener brushed off Christian Wade’s poor attempt at a tackle to finish off a stunning phase of play. Tigers had controlled the ball from a line out well enough gaining yards slowly and surely before Ben Youngs span the ball out to that man again Tony Allen who ghosted between Jon Poff and Charlie Hayter before finding Niall Morris with a beauty of a pass of his left hand. Morris bounced back inside link a pin ball before popping the ball out of the tackle back to Ben Youngs. Youngs threw a perhaps ill advised floated pass back 15 yards to Julian Salvi who fed his back row partners Jordan Crane and Steve Mafi. Mafi’s pass to Kitchener was a stunner fizzing off his right hand cutting out two defenders before the burley lock trampled over the ineffectual Wade and ignored the attempts of Tommy Bell to force him into touch.
Wasps’ first points came from a soft penalty given away by Kitchener around the half way. It was a tight call to say he was in the side but Tommy Bell made light of the wind to punish the try scorer’s mistake and raise the flags with little fuss.
Tigers could have had a third try in the 30th minute as a glorious move was snuffed out right at the end as Adam Thompstone was forced into touch as he grounded the ball; the referee went to the TMO but that was fairly inconclusive. One angle ruled his legs were in play but who could tell whether the ball hit the line of his arm was in touch first? The TMO ruled simultaneous and no try.
It didn’t matter though as the third try was quick in coming. Rob Hawkins was forced into touch just short and managed to slip the ball to Tom Varndell as he was dragged out to touch so Tigers threw in. Wasps blitzed the lineout drive and rocked Tigers but the pack held firm and the Wasps onslaught washed around our sides. As the last of them slipped harmlessly by the drive was set and Tigers charged for the line. Referee Doyle had no hesitation in awarding the try as Rob Hawkins was cast in the Neil Back role and let his mates work his try for him.
Charlie Hayter was lucky to stay on the field at the end of the half as the referee missed his ugly rake across Toby Flood’s face in a ruck. When you sign players to the big boy league they have to expect big boy scrutiny, Hayter isn’t playing in a muddy park anymore and that kind of thing might be okay for Moseley but it isn’t in the big leagues. He can count his lucky stars that he isn’t a Frenchman in the Heineken Cup. Predictably the referee did see Flood’s reaction to the interference though so Wasps gained another 3 points as the final act of the half.
At half time Thomas Waldrom replaced Steve Mafi who played superbly on his comeback but was clearly still uncomfortable with his hamstrings and Martin Castrogiovanni replaced Dan Cole in a simple swap.
Another deliberate knock on from Wasps another penalty, though this one did go forwards and was much closer to being deliberate again though the referee dealt with him harshly as Tom Bell was sent to the sin bin for his indiscretion. Tigers as is their wont took a scrum and after a quick attempt at the drive used Crane off the base. The majestic Jordan help flanker Jon Poff for just a second before releasing Ben Youngs but a second was all he needed as he put on the after-burners and sprinted between Poff and Tom’s brother Chris Bell.
Job done as Ben Youngs was replaced by Sam Harrison and Matt Smith took the place of Anthony Allen.
Billy Vunipola was lucky not see red for his vicious hack down of Manu Tuilagi. No arms were anywhere near the tackle as Vunipola targeted Tuilagi’s knees, both the NFL and rugby league have clamped down on this most dangerous of tackles and Rugby has the wrapping of the arm rule already in place to ban it; but Doyle was blind to the thuggery and dangerous play of the Wasps man and shockingly not even a penalty was given. Later in the match Joe Simpson was to target Tuilagi too, perhaps a tactic to try and incite the Hinckley man’s volcanic temper?
The Wasps pack was on top for a spell earning their side a penalty at a scrum then from a maul. Elliot Daly was on hand, with Tom Bell in the bin, to slot the penalty over from more than 40 yards.
Tigers were back in the ascendency though as Waldrom saw the Wasps defence part around him as he charged through the midfield. The ball was kept alive through Salvi and Mulipola but the move fizzled out as Flood’s hopeful chip through ran into touch.
Ed Slater though was having none of that and his mighty mitt pawed the ball back onto the Leicester side in the lineout. Crane then Tuilagi took the ball into contact left and right of the posts before a midfield fumble from Castro went backwards and was swept up by Sam Harrison and went through Flood’s then Slater’s hands before Mat Tait popped up on the left wing to fix the final defender and send Adam Thompstone clear to the line.
A bit of ballet dancing down the dead ball line meant the try was referred to the TMO but all was in order and Tigers had their 5th try of the match and 74th try of the season.
All that was left was a consolation try for Elliot Daly as he danced inside Adam Thompstone as Sam Harrison was a touch too close to his inside man and a touch too far from Thompstone on his outside. It was a cracking try but it was symptomatic of the low intensity of the second half as Tigers just stood watching without it really mattering.
Wasps had a few more ineffectual attacks as they were arguably their own worst enemy with inaccurate attacking and sloppy unforced knock ons. Charlie Hayter showed why he is probably better suited to the Championship as he dillied and dallied and let the inside defence tackle him rather than float a ball out to Varndell in acres of space. When you have the man only a handful short of the league’s scoring record I would suggest giving him the ball 10 meters from the line might be a bit of an idea.
Just a thought.
The match ended on a bit of a sour note as Wasps, sore from the beating they had just taken, decided that the old maxim of “If we can’t win the match win the fight” needed a new airing. Tigers played into their hands somewhat by not kicking the ball out and not taking a backwards step. Simon McIntyre threw two punches at Fraser Balmain after being tackled legally yet the Wasps man somehow got the penalty. McIntyre’s response was grossly disproportionate; quite what the TMO was watching is beyond me to miss those punches. Joe Simpson then stamps on Manu Tuilagi’s head and continues his fight after the final whistle.
Tigers were simply the better team in almost every facet and will be glad that they didn’t rise to the Wasps bait late on in the game. Ed Slater and Graham Kitchener were magnificent in the second row as was Jordan Crane at 8. Anthony Allen took the Wasps midfield to school and taught them a lesson and whilst Toby Flood might have had an off day with his boot he was the leader throughout and superb in open play.
Tigers move on to Bath next week and London Irish two weeks after requiring only 3 points from the two games to secure an 8th Welford Road Premiership Semi final; on this form that should be achieved with something to spare.