The Heineken Cup in recess for a few weeks and the autumn internationals are looming, so it was back to the various premierships this week-end. With the Magners League for the Celts and Italians, the Top14 for the French and the Aviva Premiership for the English, the northern hemisphere teams are now able to put the finishing touches to their squad selections – and the players are well aware that these are invaluable opportunities.
One match which appealed greatly to me, as an ex-Tigers coach, was that between the great traditional rivals, Bath and Leicester. In the years immediately prior to professionalism, and for some years immediately after, these were indeed the key matches, with the winners pretty certain to take the title. This, their first clash of the season, was played at Welford Road, where Bath had not won since 2003. Both teams were looking good in recent weeks and the clash was eagerly awaited, more so since ex-Tigers Sam Vesty and Lewis Moody had both defected to the old enemy.
Alas – for players, spectators and TV viewers alike – the weather was not kind. Consistent heavy rain, with even hail at times, denied any chance of an open game with ball handling difficult in the extreme and ground conditions uncertain under foot. No tries were scored and the main tactic for both teams was to play the game in the enemy territory, put them under extreme pressure and wait for mistakes. It was tragic then, for Bath, that their England prop-forward, David Wilson, was injured in the pre-game warm-up and was forced out. In these conditions, the set pieces were always going to be vital and this mishap proved significant in the end.
Tigers had only to wait one minute for their first dividend. Sam Vesty, back for the first time on the home ground of both his father and grandfather – this time in enemy uniform – kicked deep from his own quarter-line. The kick was ‘too good’, skidding off the wet grass to go ‘touch in goal’ for the scrum way, way back! To immediately rub salt into the wound, Toby Flood dropped the goal from the scrum and it was 3-NIL to the Tigers! Two minutes later and Ollie Barkley knocked-on deep in Bath territory and Bath were penalised almost immediately for a 6-NIL lead to the home team.
By the break, Flood had scored a faultless 12 points – from three penalties and a drop from his four attempts – and Ollie Barkley had six – but from four attempts. Leicester had seemed the better team, with both their lineout and scrum more secure, but it had only been Flood’s more accurate kicking which kept them in front. The only good try scoring chance of the half had come from Bath, when Abendanon broke clear on the counter down the left wing. At the break, I’m guessing that, in the Bath change rooms, they would have been optimistic about the second half possibilities. “They’ve fired a lot of shots, but we’re still right in this game! Now it’s our turn; let’s get out and fire a few of our own!” That’s how I would have been thinking – and talking – anyway.
Bath began the new half in a most positive fashion and stayed in touch at 18-12. Then, at 18-15, they mounted their challenge! At this point there would have been some concern in the Tigers camp. They had, however, been able to substitute Cole for Castrogiovanni at tight-head prop – a significant substitution of one top-class international for another. Bath had no such luxury, with Wilson unable even to start, and, from a very strong attacking position, they promptly lost their scrum against the head! Full marks to Leicester; they recognised immediately, both the urgency of the situation and their opportunity, and they took it. There was still 15 minutes to play, but this was a significant reverse – for both teams!
Flood kicked another penalty to ease the pressure a little at 21-15, but Bath lifted the pace in one last desperate bid. Indeed the last few minutes of the match saw Bath at their most urgent and they went close to a clean break a few times. Tigers held firm, however, and Bath will have to wait at least another year to break their Welford Road hoodoo.
I said earlier that the weather had robbed the game as a spectacle, but it was an absorbing contest, with speed of reaction a key to providing pressure and withstanding it. This would have been the same, wet or dry! In the end, I thought that the Tigers prevailed because their technique, overall, was sounder than Bath’s. Their scrum and lineout was a little better and at the tackle contest they were lower, straighter and tighter. They were more focussed on the ball and with greater numbers. It is at the core of my rugby philosophy, that successful performance under pressure is only possible with perfect technique. And so it proved, yet again.
Tom Croft was a match-winner in the lineout and Leicester’s whole front-row the same in the scrum. Toby Flood is in excellent all-round form and this augers well for England. Geordan Murphy moves into his second decade with the Tigers, with his consistency amazing. He played a great captain’s knock.