Tigers back in the title hunt
March 1, 2009
Man of the match - Leicester's Aaron Mauger works hard to protect the ball
© Getty Images
Leicester beat London Irish 31-28 in an entertaining Guinness Premiership clash at the Madejski Stadium.
Matt Smith scored two tries as the Tigers' first away win since September and lifted them into the top four in the Premiership. Smith scored either side of half-time in a match largely controlled by the Tigers, who had failed to win their last five on the road.
They had to withstand a tough last five minutes, however, with England reject Steffon Armitage and majestic Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua to the fore for the home side. Exiles fly-half Shane Geraghty slotted a penalty from 30 metres out in the second minute, while Julien Dupuy responded from similar range shortly afterwards.
Geraghty, who this week pledged to stay at Irish amid rumours of a summer departure to France, showed early glimpses of his talent but it was Leicester who were dominating territory and possession in the first quarter. Sam Vesty, Geraghty's unsung Leicester counterpart, was pulling the strings, sending fullback Scott Hamilton away on a run to the corner in the 12th minute before the big Kiwi was repelled by a strong Tom Homer tackle close to the line.
Dupuy added a second penalty on 18 minutes to make it 6-3 to the Tigers and soon afterwards the visitors added seven points to their lead. Skipper Aaron Mauger skilfully evaded the Irish defensive line and fed a delightful reverse pass to Alesana Tuilagi. The big Samoan's grubber kick was picked up by hooker Mefin Davies, who instantly fed front-row colleague Marcos Ayerza for a rousing gallop under the posts. Dupuy added the extras.
Irish, without a Premiership win for two months, needed a spark and it was provided by all-action flanker Armitage, who simply bulldozed his way to the corner, through a trio of attempted tackles, to cross the line just before the half-hour. Geraghty missed the conversion but suddenly the Exiles fans were in full voice. Dupuy dampened their spirits with a penalty in the 33rd minute and from the very next Leicester attack the mood among the Irish faithful was further deflated when Tigers centre Smith exploited more slack defence to slither over, despite a desperate late intervention from home captain Paul Hodgson. Dupuy missed the difficult conversion but coach Richard Cockerill was delighted to see the scoreboard showing his side leading 21-8 at the break.
Cockerill's former England team-mate Mike Catt was thrown into the fray by Irish for the second half in place of the subdued Elvis Seveali'i, but it made little difference as Smith went on another unfettered run to within five metres of the try line. Geraghty gave Irish a foothold in the 49th minute with a long-range penalty, but then Tuilagi and Smith combined exquisitely down the Leicester left wing for the latter to scoot in at the corner.
All the co-ordinated movement was coming from the Tigers and, at 11-28 down, Irish looked shot but a snappy break by Hodgson, and a wonderful cut-out pass by Catt, created space for replacement Sailosi Tagicakibau to slide in. Geraghty missed the conversion.
With 20 minutes to go Irish found belief. Catt spoiled a clear overlap with a rare loose pass and Tagicakibau was bundled into touch after another powerful sprint. Suddenly it was all Irish but they could not penetrate the Leicester defence and a 74th-minute Dupuy penalty appeared to seal an impressive Tigers victory, but a late Irish rally including tries from man of the match Mapusua and Armitage created a grandstand finish.
Leicester coach Richard Cockerill believes his side's victory can be a springboard to launch the Tigers into title contention. "We deserved to win the game, but I'm disappointed that we gave one of our title rivals two points with those tries at the end," said Cockerill. "When we try to play a bit, and they try to play, these things happen. But the attitude, spirit and resilience of my players is fantastic. When you try to play you will make mistakes but we came here to win the game, and we did it.
"These four points (from today's win) put us in the mix and put pressure on those above us. We've said to the players to go out and play, and they have done that. Suddenly we have a Leicester team who want to play - and that's dangerous. It will come down to the last game. They are all hard games, but this puts us in a position to get into the top four and push for the top two to get a home draw in the play-offs."
London Irish boss Toby Booth refused to accept that his club's mid-season slump could see them miss out on the end-of-season climax, but admitted international call-ups have affected his preparations. "We just gave ourselves too much to do today," said Booth.
"We were outmanoeuvred a bit, made a couple of errors and were punished. We allowed them into the game when the game broke up a bit, but there is an attacking attitude to Leicester - good on them and I'm pleased that teams who want to attack are at the top. We know this is a difficult period. We get people back but don't get enough time. They have to go from learning one game plan to another game plan, that might be totally different. We're playing a little bit safe at the moment, but I think we still did enough to win three of those games."
London Irish: Homer, Ojo, Seveali'i, Mapusua, Thompstone, Geraghty, Hodgson, Dermody, Buckland, Lea'aetoa, Hudson, Johnson, Thorpe, S. Armitage, Hala'ufia.
Replacements: Tagicakibau for Homer (53), Fisher for Ojo (73), Catt for Seveali'i (40), Richards for Hodgson (71), Coetzee for Buckland (53), Corbisiero for Lea'aetoa (53), Danaher for Thorpe (53).
Leicester: Hamilton, J. Murphy, Smith, Mauger, Tuilagi, Vesty, Dupuy, Ayerza, Davies, Cole, L. Deacon, Kay, Newby, Woods, Crane, Bonorino.
Replacements: Erinle for Smith (58), Hougaard for Vesty (78), Bonorino for Cole (3), Wentzel for L. Deacon (55), B. Deacon for Crane (43), Chuter for Bonorino (74). Not Used: Youngs.
Ref: David Pearson (RFU).