Tigers celebrated their landmark 500th game since league rugby began by running in 5 tries against London Irish and securing their 7th home Premiership semi final in 8 years. Resplendent in their new kit of bottle green with a single stripe of red, white and black Tigers were dominant throughout and could have scored more had they wanted; in the end settling for a 32-20 win after letting Irish score two consolation tries near the end.
As the match began there was a palpable nervousness on the terraces about Leicester’s playoff chances; not the Tigers but City. City needed a win away to Forest and for Bolton to drop points at home to Blackpool. The men on the Crumbie terrace had their radios tuned in and were relaying news to the rest of us as it came in. An equaliser for Bolton, bollocks! A goal for Forest, fuck!
And with the injury time it dragged on into our match too; London Irish had the kick off and were in our territory when Castrogiovanni, possibly on his last start at Welford Road was ruled off side. The ground hushed for former Tigers favourite Ian Humprheys attempt at goal. Welford Road’s famous silence was then punctured as news of Anthony Knockaert’s winner for City came through the wireless. Thankfully it didn’t distract Humprheys and whatever the result in rugby it was already going to be at least partially a good day.
Tigers levelled quickly and were now dominant in all aspects of the play. It looked only a matter of time until our try account was opened as Logovi’i Mulipola threatened down one wing and Manu Tuilagi and Anthony Allen carved their way through the midfield.
A cross field kick from Ben Youngs aiming for his brother Tom and Niall Morris was too floated and came to nought but Tigers weren’t to be denied forever.
Tom Croft in the week he was named on his second Lions tour bagged the first bursting through out wide right; it looked like Geordan Murphy had stalled the move with a knock on but referee Luke Pearce ruled either no contact had been made it or it had gone backwards as it fell to Goneva who burst powerfully through three Irish defenders to gain some impetus to the move. Switching play back right Jordan Crane came back on the angle to stop the defence drifting out, from the ruck Youngs and Flood released the ball to Tom Youngs whose days as a centre came in handy as his quick pass, and that of Geoff Parling, put Croft in the space to score.
Just two minutes later Tigers were back on the attack again. Ben Youngs took the ball from the base of the ruck drifting towards the CAT Stand, when he does this and fails he is often accused of being indecisive and dithering but no one ever remembers the times when like a matador he has goaded the on rushing defence into an ill timed charge and reaped the rewards. As happened here. Osifa Treviranus (his real name) was too wide and Alex Corbiseiro had no chance to close the gap as Youngs accelerated through, a strong fend thrown in for good measure and Youngs was away for the US born England international and scoring Tigers second try.
It was not all plain sailing for Youngs and Tigers though. He was charged down three times as he attempted to clear from the 22, two of the attempts were brought back for a London Irish offside but the one the stood should have been a score for the visitors. Jamie Gibson, thought to be Tigers bound this summer, had burst from the maul to charge down Youngs and had skilfully re-gathered the bouncing ball. Unfortunately his next move was not so good; rather than popping the ball to the on rushing Bryn Evans Gibson threw it high and hard and into touch over Evans’s shoulder. The Kiwi lock could have claimed it, it was close enough, and scored so he shouldn’t get off scott free even if the pass was undeniably poor.
Then we saw the ugly side to London Irish as Welsh scrum half Darren Allinson kicked Geordan Murphy in the head as he lay in the ruck defenseless. There had been no real bad blood in the match up to then which made the attack even more bizarre, recalling Paul Hodgson stamping on Harry Ellis’s face in a Premiership semi final in 2006. The touch judge on the Crumbie terrace side must have seen the kick, the terrace certainly did and was nosily calling for the Welsh man to see red, but after a chat with referee Luke Pearce a ticking off was sufficient along with a penalty. I would hope a citing will follow and he will miss the first weeks of next season. Rugby seems perfectly happy to ban people for a long time for things like spitting, which though foul will never hurt you, but kicking someone in the head gets no punishment. Odd game at times.
There was still time for one more attack by Irish before half time as the game broke up; Mulipola jumped out of the line, though I suspect he had no chance of defending the acres of space he was in anyway, and Ian Humprheys ghosted down the wing only for Marlon Yarde to drop the try scoring pass under superb cover defence from Toby Flood.
Allen was replaced at half time by Mat Tait after suffering what looked like a “stinger” in the first half. With the game seemingly wrapped up hopefully it was only a precaution as he did managed to finish the first half at least. The change saw Tigers re-jig their back line with Manu coming into inside centre and Tait slotting into his former position of outside centre.
This new permutation of Tigers’ midfield has the potential to be a cracker, with all of our players capable of a moment of genius on the field at the same time. It soon clicked too as Tigers scored the pick of the day’s tries. A mid field ruck saw Tigers sling the ball out to Murphy standing second in the line, as he shimmied forwards he drew on the outside defence to create a dog leg that he then put Manu Tuilagi through. Tuilagi handed off the hapless Irish centres before fixing the full back and passing back inside to Murphy. The mercurial full back then switched the play with Mat Tait coming back towards the posts on an angle, a burst of pace and a fend on the unfortunate Alex Corbiseiro (I think it’s a strength that he’s even in a position to make these last ditch tackles not a weakness he misses them) and Tait was away for the try. Swift inter passing back play at its very finest.
London Irish then got the first of their three tries as Alex Corbiseiro burrowed his way over taking 4 Tigers defenders with him. In a strong Saints pack he will be a real handful should he ever get his fitness sorted for club games, the worst accusation I can throw at him is that he seems to be one of these players who can get fit for England but leaves their club side in the lurch.
Tigers responded though in fine fashion and sealed the bonus point win with their 4th try. Tigers were attacking with waves of pressure and had gone from within their own half to the 22. Graham Kitchener smartly looked up and held the ball rather than weakly shuffling it to the outside as we are often so guilty of and found plenty of room to stretch his legs. He went within 5 meters. A harsher ref might have considered Steve Mafi, on for Tom Croft at this point, and Ben Youngs faffing around the base of the ruck as at least one knock on but as with Allinson’s boot the ref was completely oblivious to such concerns so Tigers attacked again. The ball was recycled through Salvi then Tait stepped in at first receiver and threw a cracking pass to the deeper Flood. With Topsy Ojo pressing hard Flood executed the perfect one handed flip to free the Flying Fijian Vereniki Goneva down the wing for his 3rd try of the season. Goneva rounded under the posts so Flood managed to score that conversion.
Flood turned finisher for the 5th and final try for Tigers, Sam Harrison was off the bench by now and released the ball from the back of a maul, Flood spotted the lazy inside defence from Irish and stepped inside Declan Danahar, then Skivington and Humphreys before shrugging off Evans’s tackle to ground the ball. Seeing the gap was probably de rigueur from a Premiership fly half but the skill and pace to then exploit it is what sets Flood apart.
Tigers pretty much went to sleep after that try as the rest of the bench was emptied and the rest of the players sensibly looked to conserve their energies for the play offs next week.
Irish bagged two more tries, one from a cross field kick by Shane Geraghty that Topsy Ojo touched down and the other a cracking solo try from Marlon Yarde, bamboozling Geord Ford with his pace and footwork before going round Sam Harrison and having the pace to keep Mat Tait always just out of range.
The other results came with interest, specifically the Harlequins Northampton game that thanks to Tigers doing the job had effectively become a battle to face us in the play offs. Watching the highlights Northampton seem to have got on the rough end of some decisions (I can’t wait for these to “level out” as we are always told they will, Quins will struggle to win a game when they have to pay back all the luck and refereeing decisions they have got over the past two seasons), and Quins managed to hold on for a 22-19 win. That sets up the mouth watering prospect of a repeat of last year’s final but restaged on our turf not their Twickenham second home. Ticket sales have already been swift, our own ticket office staying open until 8 after the match and Quins reportedly selling thousands of their allocation in the first day, and it looks like it should be the best attended semi final yet.