Tigers secured their 9th straight playoff semi final with a thumping 6 try 42-22 victory away to Sale. First half tries from Vereniki Goneva and Toby Flood gave Tigers a 14-3 half time lead to which Tigers quickly added, racing to a 35-3 lead before falling off and allowing 3 consolation scores to Sale.
Previous trips to Sale have required sterling second half comebacks but this one was a more comfortable affair as Tigers squeezed Sale in defence whilst finishing our own chances relatively clinically.
Sale had the early territory and possession but could not make it count, a knock from Tom Brady spoiling a 7 phase spell inside the Tigers 22. Sale varied their game well, keeping the Tigers defence on their toes with a mix of pick and goes with distributing to the wider channels.
Tigers opened the scoring on their first real attack. It was a classic multi-phase Tigers score. Anthony Allen kept the defence honest, straightening from a strong Tigers scrum. Tait went wide and we recycled through Slater. Sale’s defence was up fast and twice was on Youngs before he passed. Allen though swept up the loose ball and straightened, silkily off loading to Ayerza whose back hand flip set Morris through the middle.
Quickly it went right and a hint of an overlap was extinguished, but not before Mulipola rumbled to within 5. This caught full back Tom Arscott in the ruck. With inexperienced wingers Tom Brady and Charlie Ingall unaware it was Owen Williams who exploited the gap with a delicious Andy Goode-esque chip off the outside of his right boot. Tuilagi and Goneva were first to it with the Fijian claiming his 14 score of the campaign.
Sale quickly claimed their first points following a terrific break from kiwi Michael Paterson, Jamie Gibson was harshly ruled to have not released the man and media darling Danny Cipriani nailed the 3 points from in front.
Tigers lead should have been more but for 3 uncharacteristic penalty misses by Owen Williams. The first when the score was nil all went wide right and the next two skewed left. 6 from 9 in total though can hardly be considered a poor return.
A try was also inexplicably ruled out in the 22nd minute. Ed Slater made a lovely inside break from Williams’ pass; Niall Morris executed a dead eye grubber which Anthony Allen pounced on to finish strongly. Referee JP Doyle however chose to go back and check the midfield pass he had ruled fair in the build up. Quite how the hands were ruled to be going forwards I’ll never know. Compare that try to Jonathan Joseph’s given in the home game against Bath by the same referee.
Compare also to the try in Toulouse v Clermont where the man running on the angle throws the ball on the inside, clearly travels 3 yards forward but is allowed as the hands were going backwards.
Tigers were quickly in the ascendency again; Goneva steaming in but unable to hold Ben Youngs’ delayed pass. Sale adventurously countered from behind their own posts. Leota’s inside pass to Fihaki sent the number 8 on a gallop from one 22 to the other. Anthony Allen made a superb try saving cover tackle on Tom Brady, injuring himself out of the game in the process. In the after match analysis Sale will be disappointed with the option chosen by Fihaki, Allen’s hips were turned and an inside pass available.
It was his replacement Toby Flood who grabbed the next try. Owen Williams made a good break, handing off Moldovan prop Codilas and out pacing flanker Gaskell, before Ben Youngs and Jordan Crane found Flood against Cobilas and his propping partner Lewis-Roberts. The props had 4 defenders to mark in far too much space and Flood easily ran between them.
The second half saw Tigers continue in the same rich vein of form. Niall Morris, returning after 3 months of injury, capped his 50th start with a try. The Irishman was on hand with a terrific supporting line to take Williams’ pass from contact following a nice break from the Youngs brothers combining down the blindside.
A fourth try and the bonus point to secure a semi final was quick in coming just 8 minutes later. A midfield obstruction by Henry Thomas gave Leicester good ball inside the Sale 22. Tigers were finding the Sale defence much tougher this time being driven backwards and forced wide, the key to unlocking it came from a glorious off load from Jordan Crane. A little diamond of skill the number 8 slipped the pass behind his back, attracting the defence and allowing Gibson to slip up the inside.
With the Sale defence now stretched it took one more phase before Toby Flood, running his trademark fast and tight line from Ben Youngs, went over for his 2nd try. Danny Cipriani sportingly patted Flood on the back rather than try and tackle him. What a nice chap.
Flood was almost in for his hat trick moments later. Tigers had gained possession in the Sale 22 from a weaving Ben Youngs break and a Sale offside. Goneva’s dummy line attracted the Sale defence as Morris swept behind him; the Irishman straightened and found Flood but good defence, and perhaps an early tackle, from Tom Brady prevented the grounding.
It hardly mattered though as Tigers scrum marched the Sale pack at a rate of knots to earn the penalty try.
With the game secured in the 60th minute there was a marked drop in Tigers' intensity and the bench was emptied. Sale grabbed three tries but never really looked like getting the most unlikeliest of comebacks.
First it was Michael Paterson exploiting Toby Flood’s poor decision to blitz and racing in at the corner, then Henry Thomas scored following a line out front peel. David Mele and Vereniki Goneva looked completely uninterested in tackling the 20 stone of Bath bound beef on the hoof and really can you blame them when winning by such a margin?
There can be no complaints on Johnny Leota’s score though as the Samoan raced in from half way with a lovely swerve to beat Niall Morris. Tigers though will be disappointed with Waldrom’s first up tackle and Mele’s miss in open field.
The diminutive Frenchman made amends though with the final score. Niall Morris had a good chance for a second score of his own but fumbled the grounding, with Sale now running everything Tigers were able to turnover an ambitious cross field kick before gaining a penalty. With the scrum taken but not marching forwards like the previous one Waldrom picked up and backed into the halfback, off loading to Mele for the easy dive in.
A stonking scoreline and 9th successive Play Off semi final, all in all a good day at the office in anyone’s book. Tigers though will not be happy with the spurned chances. Tom Croft is rumoured to be fit again and what a boost in the search for an 11th Championship that would be.