A disjointed Tigers side were almost blown off course by a ferocious Saracens defence at a blustery Welford Road. Down to 14 men for the final 35 minutes the Londoner’s defence was fast and aggressive but could not stop Tigers recording the try bonus needed for the faint hopes of a home semi final.
The final score was close, 31-27; much like last week Tigers were guilty of switching off when they felt the win was secure. That cannot be tolerated in the play offs.
Saracens took the lead first. A Charlie Hodgson cut out pass found Nick Fenton-Wells on the charge giving good field position in the 22. With the ball now 5 metres out Louis Deacon shifted from his post too early allowing Ben Spencer to dummy and go. The well travelled Mancunian was in for the score but the wind blew Hodgson’s conversion wide.
Two cracking charge downs from the returning Steve Mafi kept Tigers camped in Sarries territory and Owen Williams was on hand to slot a penalty from the next ruck. Saracens were dangerous in attack and went close again before Mat Tait’s try saving tackle on Scottish international Duncan Taylor.
Saracens’ had the penalty though and Hodgson was able to battle the wind for the 3 points. Owen Williams was not as lucky as his penalty following Taylor’s midfield block was ruled wide despite there being more than a hint of success about it.
The vociferousness of the Saracens famed “Wolf Pack” forced Tigers into 4 first half substitutions, though cautiousness played a part. Was this a knock out game the chance of Geoff Parling withdrawing so early is slim. Williams twisted his knee in a nasty collision and might be more of a concern.
His withdrawal did allow Dan Bowden an extended farewell to Welford Road. The talented kiwi centre never quite found his niche at Leicester and is rumoured to be returning to New Zealand. His first intervention produced the first real burst of fluency from the home side.
Attacking down the Crumbie touchline towards the Welford Road end he sent Niall Morris free, the despairing defence of the Saracens forced his off load to Ayerza. The Argentinean held the ball up, back to the line, attracting defenders. He slipped the ball between two men to find Mafi on the charge.
The Tongan was brought down short but Tigers were pouring through, Kitchener going close before Mele was brought down by a high-no-arms tackle from Hayden Smith. The American international recently returned from the NFL’s New York Jets and to the general amazement of the crowd not only avoided a red card but even a penalty.
Quite how referee Garner thought Mele gained his head injury without a high tackle is one of life’s little mysteries.
There was just a minute remaining as the Tigers pack surged forwards on the third scrum; Garner had no quibbles with marching straight under the posts. Flood’s conversion gave Tigers a 10-8 lead at half time.
Early in the second half Tigers extended their advantage further. Michael Tagicakibau’s spear tackle on Ayerza drew a yellow card. From the penalty Tigers’ driving maul marched from the 22 line to the 5m. With advantage signalled all that was required was a simple switch between Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi; the Samoan brushed off Tim Streather’s tackle to go under the posts.
The excitement was not over though as Greg Garner issued new German cap Justin Melck a red card. Subsequent TV footage showed Melck guilty of a nasty attempted eye gouge.
Mark McCall had suggested this call was wrong and wants Tigers help in overturning it; perhaps forgetting his clubs antics in the Andy Kyriacou-Seru Rabeni incident a few years ago.
With a 2 man advantage Tigers were quickly back on top. Manu Tuilagi again at the centre of things breaking the tackles of Charlie Hodgson and Jamie George before passing inside to Niall Morris. Morris could have chanced his arm or passed inside to Kitchener but chose to throw an outlandish pass to allow his fellow winger Blaine Scully in at the corner.
Saracens struck back with a penalty try, a driving maul had crabbed forward and collapsed with Tigers looking to have held the ball up. Garner though awarded a penalty as he ruled it was an offside player who prevented the grounding.
In an end to end game Tigers secured the bonus point just 3 minutes later. Pablo Matera was particularly eye-catching in the build up with a thrusting burst; Dan Bowden also showed his nifty footwork to straighten the line before Graham Kitchener underlined his burgeoning reputation by breaking two tackles and stretching out his long arms to just reach the line.
With the bonus point secure, Saints now well ahead of Wasps the game was dead and buried. A 16 point lead was a healthy margin but was squandered by two poor efforts from Thomas Waldrom. Straight from the kick off from the Kitchener try Waldrom lost the ball in contact, debutant Maro Itoje gobbled up the loose ball before feeding Jack Wilson for the score.
The second was from good attacking ball. A free kick from a midfield scrum was quickly taken at the base and good yards were made before Waldrom’s pass to no one was intercepted by Ben Spencer. A neat sidestep put him clear of the pack, with Thompstone back tracking and non-committal forcing him wide, Sam Harrison was covering but could not get there in time and Spencer just squeezed in the corner.
The match ended with Saracens still pushing for the win. This was just their 3rd defeat all season and a testament to their squad depth, much of it coming from their use of young players. Tigers secured a record haul for third place and with just one Premiership defeat since Christmas will head for the play offs with huge confidence.