Europe not a level playing field
April 13, 2011
Leicester came up short at the Aviva Stadium © Getty Images
After another huge round of action in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, England's representation in the competition has been halved. Northampton will fight another day, against Perpignan in the semis, while Leicester must lick their wounds before turning their focus to the Premiership run-in.
The Tigers didn't come out of the blocks quick enough in their quarter-final against Leinster. As England found out in their Grand Slam decider in Dublin, if you don't do that at Lansdowne Road your task becomes very difficult. With the quality of players that Leinster have and their wealth of experience, it's a tough ask to wrestle back the initiative once it has gone.
The loss of lock Louis Deacon to injury hit Leicester hard. The lineout fell apart after his exit but it's worth remembering that Leinster's Leo Cullen knew the Tigers' set-piece well after his time at Welford Road. Cullen is a good player and used an effective defensive plan against Leicester.
Deacon would have added stability and physicality up front and while Ed Slater has had a tremendous season, he was under pressure and made a couple of mistakes in what was his first exposure to such a big game.
It would have been interesting had Alesana Tuilagi's second-half try been given. I'm not sure if he was trying to emulate Chris Ashton's now infamous swallow dive, but he seemed to go very high with the ball. Had he reached and perhaps stayed a bit lower, he may have got there and Leicester could have kicked on.
Next season will mark 10 years since Leicester last won Europe's top prize, but their near misses have not contributed any added pressure on the squad. There's always pressure to win things at Leicester.
Richard Cockerill, the Tigers' coach, will take some solace from where the English game sits in the European pecking order in terms of the salary cap. Competing against the French, whose budgets seem to be rising all the time, is a tough ask and when you throw the Irish and Welsh into the equation it is harder still. International players don't have to turn up week in, week out in the Magners League.
Leicester and the other English clubs, when it comes to Europe, are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. In that regard they're competing well and the Tigers have been successful, ensuring that most years they make the latter stages. Northampton have done a fantastic job in recent campaigns with their limited resources and in an 'almost' home semi-final at stadium:mk, you wouldn't bet against them turning Perpignan over and making the big one at the Millennium Stadium.
The old adage of 'we'll concentrate on the league' still applies for Leicester. They can put all of their efforts behind that and move on, they're fortunate that their Premiership position allows them a forum in which to work off some of the disappointment. The Saints will also have to re-focus their attention quickly for this weekend's tough tie against a desperate Newcastle side.
The Falcons' loss to Leeds last weekend was a hammer blow, and it will be interesting to see if they can harness their desperation and snatch an upset. I have to admit, I fear for them. If this game had rolled round couple of weeks ago, during Northampton's Six Nations slump, they could have nicked a result, but that isn't the case.
Kingston Park is a tough place to go and play, it was a bogey ground for Leicester during my career, so they have got that in their favour, but the momentum in the battle against the drop has swung in Leeds' favour. Falling into last place can galvanize a side but Northampton have regained their mojo and will be focused on a top four sport and creeping closer to a home semi-final.
Leicester are up against another side gunning for post-season honours, Gloucester. Some will be calling for big performances from Ben Youngs and Toby Flood after another failure in Dublin but it's not necessary. They're young guys and after the Ireland game, when their worlds seemed to be turned upside down, they were both in the running for Man of the Match against Bath. They've got character. They'll be back. If I was trying to sign two halfbacks at the moment, I'd be going after those two.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
"The thirst for knowledge has seen coaches break away from the confines of rugby and look to America." Tom Hamilton on the two-way learning process
On Saturday, New Zealand face the USA in a match that has been 40 years in the making. Tom Hamilton finds the atmosphere building in Chicago
Most modern rugby players will not know the name Ray Williams but they should be eternally grateful to him, writes John Taylor
With the All Blacks playing the USA Eagles this weekend, Craig Dowd says rugby is ready to make a professional breakthrough Stateside