Sunday, 19 October 2014

3 Star Tigers Take Ulster Scalp

A breath taking 20 minutes which saw Tigers score three tries was just enough to seal a crucial 25-18 European win against Ulster at Welford Road.

Tigers coped with losing talisman Manu Tuilagi on 14 minutes brilliantly by scoring tries from Owen Williams, Graham Kitchener and Freddie Burns in the next 20 minutes whilst Ulster crumbled from a solid 3-0 lead to trail 19-3 at the break.

And it could have been more had Tigers not started the day with the indifferent Burns attempting the kicks to the posts.

Ulster opened the scoring with a Paddy Jackson penalty on 8 minutes after Tigers had infringed at the ruck, and Tigers were lucky that the red haired Irishman was off target with an earlier kick or it could have been 6-0 down in almost as many minutes.

Tigers responded immediately as Blaine Scully leaped like a salmon to claim Burns' restart and power into the heart of the Ulster defence.  Eventually scragged down Ulster's last man looked to have deliberately knocked on in the following move but referee Poite was unmoved, not the only time Ulster were lucky to escape censure from the Frenchman.

Ben Youngs wasted two good opportunities in the 22 through a chip to no one and a floated pass that was intercepted but Tigers were not to be denied.  Julian Salvi broke down the right hand side before play was switched to Tuilagi rampaging down the left, drawing a penalty from Ulster on the 5m line; Manu re-injured his groin in the move though and was swiftly withdrawn as Tigers kicked for the corner.

From the lineout Tigers drove and were denied, the pack heaved again and were denied, before Owen Williams, warming to his role as a crash ball centre, took the ball at pace and with intent.  The Welshman slammed into three Ulster bodies and fought to successfully ground the ball.

There was no mistake with the conversion but Burns was off target with a later penalty skewing it badly wide right.  Again Ulster rode their luck with Mr Poite as Tommy Bowe's ugly challenge on Miles Benjamin in the air was punished with only a penalty.

Ulster challenged again but were unable to convert any possession to points; Tigers slowly won the kicking battle to gain good territory in the Ulster 22.  The conservative kicking strategy was vindicated when Youngs picked off an innocuous pass from the base of an Ulster maul setting Graham Kitchener up for the second try before the half hour mark.

Tigers extended the lead just 5 minutes later when Burns, now relieved of the goal kicking duties, dummied his way over bamboozaling four Ulster defenders in the process.  

Ulster were down to 14 men at this point following a yellow card to Craig Gilroy for yet another tackle on the man in the air.  Ulster were very fortunate that referee Poite did not produce a red card.  With these two incidents and the one last year against Saracens you have to ask is this a deliberate tactic from Ulster designed to intimidate opposition players?

Tigers looked to have taken full advantage from the extra man and the wave of momentum when Leonardo Ghiraldini twisted, worked, wrestled and squirmed his way over in the Crumbie corner on the stroke of half time but he was correctly denied by the TV ref; Ben Youngs foot just barely grazing the line before the final pass was completed.

Tigers won the lineout but were unable to finish the job off, forgetting how effective running hard, straight and flat to the gainline had been for Owen Williams' try instead we went wide and deep attempting to take advantage of the missing winger.  It did not work.

With the break for half time the momentum Tigers had built was lost and never to be regained.  The second half was almost all Ulsters.  The kicking game that was so effective in the first half was not so much over done as done much much worse.  Playing territory and forcing another mistake was a good strategy but badly employed.

For me much of the blame must go to Burns.  His kicking for territory was poor and when he did successfully earn us possession in their half he flippantly wasted it with his selfish and immature chips to nowhere and no one.  It was a real slap in the face when this alleged England contender was replaced by scrum half David Mele to see out the match.

But Tigers did start the half well extending their lead to 22-3 when Owen Williams converted a straight forward scrum penalty.  Ulster were a totally different team in the second half running the ball with vigour and verve, causing us all sorts of problems to our defence.  First they cut the gap with a penalty following Tigers collapsing an attacking maul.

Then they scored the try of the day, the first of two outstanding efforts; Ulster won 30 yards from a kicking duel between the back threes ending with a lineout on half way.  Sweeping a rare clean catching off the top they went through the hands, taking advantage of Miles Benjamin's poor decision to step in they raced into the 22 and smart running lines and sharp passing helped them evade the Tigers scramble defence for the try.

The score rattled Tigers.  They looked panicked.  Trying random 50m drop goals and retreating further into our shell.  A scrum penalty successfully converted by Williams helped calm the nerves, and of course eventually was the match winning score.

Ulster's second score had two parts, first was the delicious inside ball to British Lion Tommy Bowe who scythed his way forward, only stopped by a crunching Blaine Scully tackle.  Second was the finish by Franco van der Merwe, a huge swinging dummy was bought by all before the lumbering 6'6" beast dove over the ruck like an NFL running back diving over a pile of bodies.  In this game of course you've got to get back to ground the ball and the South African just about did despite the attentions of Ben Youngs.

Crucially Paddy Jackson was unsuccessful from the simple conversion.  Did the young man get a case of the yips and skew his kick you wonder?  No, the growing force of Jamie Gibson was sharp on the uptake and using all of his 6'5" frame, all of his wingspan and all of his vertical leap he managed to charge down the conversion!  I can't remember ever seeing that in a top level game before.

That left the gap at 7 points and Tigers in a bit of a quandary when a chance for 3 points came.  Are we battling with Ulster or Toulon in this group?  Do we take 3 points and deny Ulster the losing bonus, or are we challenging Toulon, do we go for the try and damn the risk of Ulster's point or possible draw?

We went for the ambitious.  We went for the try.  We went for Toulon.

We messed it up.  Twice.  Then again sort of a third time.  Well, you can't fault the ambition.   First line out was taken cleanly and the maul set up, but Ulster resisted and emboldened by Tigers spurning the kick infringed again.  This time we tried a trick line out.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Ulster cleared but only to the 22.  We tried another trick line out.  Why?  According to ESPN's stats these were 2 of only 3 line outs we lost all game, the other was a not straight call.

Ulster tried for the draw but Tigers defence was stout and held out.  Before the match I'd have taken a win, any win, 2 weeks ago I'd probably have taken a close defeat; but today and last night I'm gutted we didn't kill them off with the 4th try.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Tigers battle to vital win

A gritty, a battling, a brilliant performance from Tigers ended the 3 game losing run and restored some pride with a 6 point win over equally troubled Harlequins.  17 points from the boot of Welshman Owen Williams and a try of rare quality from Californian Blaine Scully was enough to see off the Londoners who responded with a 3 penalties from Kiwi Nick Evans and a sniping try from Karl Dickson.

This was an old fashioned match with both teams attempting to win the arm wrestle up front, both teams decidedly only playing when it was clearly on and neither team making a rash of substitutes; Tigers made 2 subs and Quins only 3.

Tigers made a fast start; Fraser Balmain and Leonardo Ghiraldini sweeping a loose ball in midfield away to Ben Youngs.  The ball was quickly shifted through Mat Tait and Manu Tuilagi for Jamie Gibson to roam into some open space.  The blindside did well to hold the ball for long enough to commit last man Luke Wallace just enough to let Blaine Scully squeeze by for the American's fifth try for the club.

Some Quins fans have been suggesting the final pass was forward.  All I can say is that after last year the irony is delicious.

Tigers will feel hard done by Wigglesworth's first penalty against them, even on multiple viewings I can't find an offence.  No help from BT sport who seem to view actually discussing why penalties were given as completely beneath them.  Rizzo's drive is directly over the ball and Gibson's release and roll speedy.  Either way Evans made a good 3 points.

The next spell saw three penalties in as many minutes.  First a scrum penalty against Quins was converted from 43m out by Williams; Quins dragged one back after Ghiraldini collapsed the maul he set up with a stand up tackle on Tikoirotuma; Tigers rounded off the period with another 3 points from long range after Will Collier's lazy attempt to slow play down at a ruck.

Tigers had a great chance to go further ahead before half time; Quins failed to deal with a fairly standard garryown and Goneva was first to the bouncing ball, only a try saving tackle from Matt Hopper forcing the Fijian into touch stopped a certain 5 pointer.  

Owen Williams' usually reliable radar was then faulty at two more long range attempts but in my view both should have been re-taken. 

The reason was rule of the game 21.5 (c) :

If the kicker indicates to the referee the intent to kick at goal, the opposing team must stand still with their hands by their sides from the time the kicker starts to approach to kick until the ball is kicked.
The Londoners seemed to think they were at Piccadilly circus such was the movement at Williams' kick, following a bit of sealing off from replacement hooker Dave Ward.  Lock forward George Robson was the chief offender both times.

Tigers did get another 3 points in the first half after a tough penalty against Chris Robshaw for what seemed to be a good disruption attempt.  This time the kick was from the 22 rather than half way and the tireless Quins managed to keep themselves still for a moment.

After half time it was much the same, trading penalties, Tigers eeking out a territorial advantage with a better executed kicking game.  Evans opened the scoring 5 minutes in; Balmain simply lost his footing at a Quins scrum and such are the rules of the game a good kicker like Evans takes 3 points.

Williams canceled the slip immediately, Scully's hustle from the kick off was rewarded with a dominant man-and-ball tackle on Tikoirotuma forcing the Fijian to hold on for the penalty.  Williams gained the 3 points and had a chance to extend the lead 5 minutes later.

Salvi poached an over throw, Tigers were rampant in the Quins 22 surging forwards and left.  Going right against the grain Williams on an outside arc could have gone himself but instead forced the pass in front of Scully who was unable to take it.

Williams was treated for a blow to face, which he took clearing out a ruck.  After the game Williams could be seen vomiting profusely on the side of the pitch, a common symptom of the current zeitgeist injury concussion.

Whether it was the head knock, the now torrential down pour or simply the difficulty Williams was unsuccessful with another 40m+ long range kick a few minutes later.

A fairly simple 3 points was offered almost 20 minutes after the last disturbance to the score board, Charlie Mathews getting on the wrong side of a tackle. Williams took the 3 and Tigers must have felt the game was won.

Harlequins to their credit responded immediately; claiming the re-start, upping the tempo and gaining possession inside Tigers 22 for the first time in the match.  The sealing off was blatant even by modern standards but unpunished as Quins recycled possession probing for a gap.  Eventually they manufactured one as Karl Dickson took advantage of Manu Tuilagi being unaware of his surroundings on the fringe defence.

I thought Quins would keep going with the style that reaped them immediate rewards but instead they were content to play kick tennis and hoof the ball off the field with the clock dead.  Shows that Tigers aren't the only side in the league that might be lacking a bit of confidence.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Gloucester score Shed-loads

Tigers were blown away by a rampant Gloucester on Saturday as the Cherry ‘n’ Whites powered to a 30-9 first half lead, scoring three tries in the process.  Tigers at least maintained pride in the second half conceding only a penalty and gaining a last play consolation score via David Mele.

With Seremaia Bai ruled out again with a calf injury Freddie Burns was forced back into the line up and he had a torrid first half, culminating in his clearance kick being charged down for a try on 20 minutes.  Burns responded with some good tactical kicking in the second half but the damage was done and the fly half could do with someone else, anyone else, returning to fitness to allow him to lick his wounds in private and regain some form on the training paddock.

Part of the problem is that having both Williams and Burns as play makers is creating confusion in the team; the players don’t seem to know who is in charge and who to run lines off.  With Ben Youngs preferring to be the creative force as well this leads to a horribly unbalanced and disjointed attack. Too many cooks spoiling the broth.

The defence has not been acceptable.  For the second try neither Goneva nor Scully forced Sharples into a pass (or tackled him) as he just eased in for a try from 30m out.  For the third the BT Sport team neatly clipped up an example of Tigers defence just not putting the effort in to reorganise promptly.  Matt Smith could have tried to pressure Hook’s pass more but he was helpless to stop a correctly executed 3 on 2 as Gloucester put May into the corner.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the defence has been the leaking of offside penalties.  Again this is pure laziness.  We do not operate a rush defence, we are not timing a charge wrong, we are just not getting back on side after rucks.  It is simply unforgivable.

People have blamed the injuries but they are no excuse for a team looking clueless in attack, not limited and well drilled just as if without plan or instruction, or for a lack of effort.  Everyone should be able to execute a game plan and put some effort in.  We’re lacking some great players, granted, but this team was good enough to win that match and beat London Irish the week before; that has to be faced up to by the coaches, the fans and the players themselves.

Tigers now lie 10th in the table, a loss against Harlequins would make this the 2nd longest losing run in our league history.  Only the 5 defeats suffered during the 2003 Rugby World Cup would “beat” it.  That is not a record this team would like to have and there is only one way to do it.  Roll on Harlequins.