Austin Healey Column
Leicester face an uphill struggle
April 5, 2011
Ben Youngs must overcome his Dublin demons as Leicester look to overturn Leinster © Getty Images
Leicester's final run out before their vital Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Leinster, a gritty, hard fought win over Harlequins, owed little to their free-flowing win over Bath or their hosts' rout of Gloucester.
In reality, it was always going to be that way. The game was very physical and beforehand Conor O'Shea had promised that Harlequins would come out and challenge Leicester in terms of intensity.
The game produced its fair share of controversy and both Marcos Ayerza and Joe Marler were exceptionally lucky to only get two weeks for their ugly scrap in the second-half. For Ayerza, who was convicted and found guilty of a head-butt, to only get a two-week ban, the Leicester judicial team must have done an amazing job.
It's the same with Marler. I know it was six of one and half a dozen of another, but we've seen him upper-cutting and punching in front of the referee. Of course, there was no harm to either of them because they're both props. You're not going to do any damage unless you've got a sledgehammer in your pocket.
In this instance, I would look at what is done in Australian rugby league, where if you throw the first punch, you're in trouble but the rest of the team can do whatever they want to you. There's no such thing as retaliation.
Leicester struggled in the first-half but bit back well after the break, with skipper Craig Newby to the fore. The former All Black has been really good for them this year, moving to openside and filling in for Ben Woods. I just think he's been fantastic. He's been all over the ball at the breakdown, his work-rate is top-notch, he's very abrasive and doesn't take a backward step from anything.
The Tigers will need characters like him in Dublin on Saturday. I think it will be a difficult game and it's all about the first 10-15 minutes. The Irish will come out going crazy and Leicester need to put them on the back-foot. If they can do that they'll have a chance of winning, but I just fancy Leinster after what Ireland did to England over there.
It's worth noting that Ben Youngs and Toby Flood are going back to play in Dublin for the first time since the Grand Slam loss and to add to that, Youngs didn't have a very good game against Quins and was indecisive. It's going to be a tough one for Leicester but if they can come through that one then they probably deserve to go all the way.
While Leicester are preparing for their European tie, their nearest rivals in the Premiership, Saracens, are in Miami for another team-bonding exercise following Sunday's comfortable win over Bath. I think it's great as long as they don't overdo it. It's a long flight there and a long flight back and if they're dehydrated heavily while they're over there, it will take a few days to recover. When I was at Leicester in 2001, we went to Portugal for a week and had a training camp. The training hard but we also went out a fair bit, played some golf, and it just gave you a bit of time to recharge your batteries in time for the run in.
Sarries remind be very much of Leicester around 2002, when Rod Kafer was coach. They play a very structured, patterned game. The problem they may have is that the opposition work out what patterns they will be utilising. If their rivals maximise their line-speed and defence and hit them behind the gain-line then they're going to struggle. We saw Exeter do that to them in the league, but they have got such a good pack that they can withstand the battering and come back to win tight games. They keep going and going, phase after phase, until they win a penalty. They are a very pragmatic side.
At this stage, I think it's fair to the other teams in the league to say that Leicester and Sarries deserve to be in the final. They've got a bit of a points gap, more wins than everyone else and I don't think anyone could argue with that. But do I think that Gloucester and Northampton, should they complete the top four, can go away and win? Absolutely. They definitely can.
It must be said however that opposing sides are less likely to win a semi-final at Welford Road than Vicarage Road. The pure size of the occasion at Leicester makes a difference and at Vicarage Road they don't get big crowds, it's not as intimidating. It remains all to play for at the top.
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby