A modern classic
April 22, 2012
Leicester's Steve Mafi delivered an eye-catching cameo against Quins that included a try © Getty Images
The Aviva Premiership threw down the gauntlet to the Heineken Cup with a scintillating advert for English rugby's top flight at The Stoop on Saturday.
We are more used to the battle for the European crown raising pulse rates at this time of year with the recent quarter-final skirmishes offering the latest reminder of the special sporting drama it seems only that competition can deliver. Rest assured that next weekend's mouth-watering semi-finals will keep that rich tradition alive but those games will have to go some way to match what must surely be the Premiership clash of the season and one of the most entertaining encounters seen in these parts for some time.
The contest was worthy of a final, as was the atmosphere, and Premiership Rugby chiefs can only hope that the season finale across the road at Twickenham on May 26 provides a similar feast of top class rugby played out in a crackling arena.
This was a seven-try thriller that ebbed and flowed like a Bernard Herrmann score and provided a rollercoaster ride of emotion and intensity to rival any Hitchcock classic. A heady mix of brute force, flair and lung-bursting industry intoxicated those lucky enough to be present or in front of a TV screen. Both sides bristled with intent - with a power-packed opening scrum from Quins setting the tone - but as fiercely competitive the game, there was little evidence that it would ever spill over into something less easy on the eye.
The fact that so many home-grown players - or should we say England-qualified - took central roles in the encounter only served to underline the value of this game in terms of a glowing showpiece for the English game. Ugo Monye and Nick Easter, both surplus to requirements with England, lit up the game for different reasons - the former by rediscovering his scoring touch, the latter by driving into the heart of the Tigers' challenge time and time again.
Easter's impressive work rate was eventually matched by his Leicester counterpart Thomas Waldrom while Toby Flood's ability to harness his side's growing momentum - and collect a game-winning 23 points in the process - will have done his England chances no harm at all. Add in the odd flash of brilliance from Quins' Kiwi playmaker Nick Evans and a notable cameo from recently-crowned Premiership Player of the Month Steve Mafi and there is little wonder why the crowd were out of their seats so often. The only sour moment on a glorious day all round was the sight of Leicester flanker Tom Croft being stretchered from the field but the initial prognosis is good.
Leicester may not yet be assured of a home semi-final in the play-offs but there can be little doubt that they are now favourites to lift the sizeable Premiership silverware. They are riding a run of seven straight league victories that have seen them account for three of their four title rivals in Quins, Saracens and Northampton - with their last defeat coming at the hands of Exeter in February. But it is the manner of those victories that will have their nearest challengers fretting over the video analysis.
Richard Cockerill's side are firing on all cylinders with their attacking intent reaping rich rewards. The Tigers have broken the 30-point barrier in their last six Premiership games and racked up 30 tries in the process. They have crossed the whitewash 16 times more than Quins and a staggering 36 more times than defending champions Saracens. Read it and weep.
The mis-firing Tigers of the early season, stripped of their international contingent, who lost five of their first six games and shipped 50 points to Saracens in the process are a thing of the long and distant past.
Leicester edge out Quins in epic
A home clash with a Bath side whose season continues to peter out will hold no fear for the Tigers in this kind of form and that final regular season outing will surely be a stepping stone to a home semi-final and most likely a return to their second home in south west London.
The Tigers may face Quins again before the season is out and may relish the chance of revenge. Having led the table for most of the season, Conor O'Shea's charges clearly have the armoury and the belief to stand toe-to-toe with the six-time Premiership champions but they will have to improve their discipline if they are to reverse this result.
On this evidence, it will be puzzling to many why there is no English side in the mix for European glory next weekend with Saracens the last team to fall by the wayside in the quarter-finals. But the Heineken Cup's loss is quite clearly the Premiership's gain with the desire to right those wrongs serving to lift the battle for the title out of the mediocrity that has shrouded it for much of the campaign.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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