A dominant first 20 minutes was enough for Tigers to see off a spirited final hour from Exeter as they triumphed 21-9 at Sandy Park. Renowned by some for a terrific atmosphere Sandy Park was a strange cross between a morgue and a library as Tigers had a choke on hold on the game, and even though their grip loosened in the second half they never let go completely.
Tigers started the game terrifically as the heavyweight pack selected by Richard Cockerill acted like a wrecking ball through the Exeter midfield. Great awareness from Toby Flood spotted occasional full back Phil Dollman out of position and took advantage with a dinked chip for Niall Morris. He looked to have scored but the T.M.O. ruled that his fumble in the grounding went forwards. To my eye that went backwards and he was next to ground it for a try.
Tigers went close again as a Jordan Crane looked to free Ben Youngs round the side of a driven maul. He tripped though and referee Wigglesworth ruled holding on. The mighty Leicester pack was not to be denied however and it was from a similar move that Ben Youngs squirmed over, this time it was elder brother Tom Youngs who drew the last man.
Flood missed the conversion but atoned with a penalty not too long afterwards. Tigers’ backline defence was excellent with Blaine Scully’s defence immaculate. Vereniki Goneva, in his favoured position of outside centre, was particularly quick off the mark and showed an excellent work ethic to get back to the outside if he was beaten.
Typical Tigers to find the Fijian good at all the dull things to go with his magic feet.
Exeter finally arrived in the second quarter as they finally got some ball and field position to use it. Usually it is the away side you say were “still on the bus” but Exeter’s minds looked elsewhere for long periods of the first half.
Goneva’s never stop work rate was rewarded on the stroke of half time when he pounced on Jason Shoemark’s loose pass to race away under the posts. Toby Flood converted for a 15-0 half time lead.
Tigers’ mega-sized back five finally tired in the second half. Ed Slater brings immense physicality around the field and as an option in the lineout he is fantastic, but what you gain in those stakes you lose out on the floor of the ruck.
With only Julian Salvi as a true flanker Tigers struggled to stem the Chief’s flow in the second half. Consequently they lost out on possession, territory and the chance to claim the try bonus point.
Tigers were out on their feet for much of the second period and the injection of fresh legs from Kitchener and Gibson helped somewhat to turn the tide back in the Leicester favour.
2 of the 3 second half penalties from Exeter were simply due to speed of ball and pressure. The other a fairly bizarre scrum penalty for Tom Youngs standing up, despite the Tigers pack marching forwards at the time.
I look forward to seeing Dylan Hartley penalised off the park next week.
With 70 minutes gone Tigers still had the chance to press for a third try and open up the possibility of the try bonus point. Tigers were finally getting some ball in the Exeter half and had earned a scrum penalty. At 9 points up the penalty insured against a two score Exeter come back but a kick to the corner might have opened the game up for an extra point ourselves.
This summed up both sides as neither was really positive enough to take hold of the game in the second half, so Tigers first half stranglehold held firm.
At the end of the match Ben Kay’s man of the match Vereniki Goneva let slip Tigers tactical master plan. “I’d like to thank the Lord” he said. With the Almighty as our 16th man no wonder our defence seemed omnipotent!