Tigers leave it late to down Bath
January 4, 2009
Leicester flanker Tom Croft scored two second-half tries to defeat Bath
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Leicester Tigers produced a classic display of second-half belligerence to defeat Bath 24-22 at Welford Road. Bath fly-half Butch James put in a Man of the Match performance and while Bath played the better rugby, outscoring the home side three tries to two, the Tigers had the grit and determination to claw their way to victory and deny the West Country side an immediate return to the top of the Premiership.
Leicester's much vaunted front-row was immediately on the front-foot, winning a penalty after only two minutes as Bath were guilty of not driving straight. Springbok fly-half Derick Hougaard landed the penalty with ease for an early lead.
After Leicester had flaunted their wares up front, it was the turn of Bath to show their strengths as quick line-out ball and a flat pass from James to Alex Crockett sent Nick Abendanon scampering through a gap in the Tigers line caused by a rush of blood from Aaron Mauger.
Bath secured possession with a five-metre scrum, and despite a shove from the Leicester eight James arrived flat onto the ball before smashing Julien Dupuy backwards towards his own line. Late-replacement lock Stuart Hooper continued the momentum before reaching out a long arm to score.
With James' conversion added, Bath looked to consolidate with a beautiful spiralling kick from James setting up fine field position five metres from the Leicester line. The throw failed to go five metres, and Leicester capitalised on the mistake by building momentum of their own.
Some sharp work from fullback Geordan Murphy and Mauger sent Leicester into Bath territory, but they came away empty handed after Hougaard sent a penalty rebounding off the post. Bath took the chance to flex their attacking muscles again moments later, with some superb handling leaving the Tigers defence chasing shadows on halfway.
James and Tigers wing Johne Murphy had a stern talking to from referee Chris White after a difference of opinion on 20 minutes, before a flowing Bath backs move and a deft chip from James turned the Leicester defence with Shontayne Hape knocking on with the line at his mercy.
Leicester won another penalty at the ensuing scrum, with Julian White and Martin Castrogiovanni asserting their considerable weight on proceedings. Leicester snatched a Bath lineout soon after and entered into their most concerted period of pressure.
Strong running from Tom Croft and particularly Dan Hipkiss put the Tigers on the front foot, running hard at the Bath midfield and looking for the offload wherever possible. Leicester's breakdown blues continued however, with a static White put into trouble by Dupuy and a penalty on the floor going the way of Bath.
A late-switch kick from James then caught Geordan Murphy off guard following a lineout, with pressure from Alex Ctrockett winning a penalty five-metres out. The ball went into the corner and following a fine line-out drive hooker Peter Dixon made a late show for the line and crashed over.
A second penalty from Hougaard drew Leicester back to within a score after James had missed the conversion. Murphy immediately let Bath back onto the front-foot by dropping a high ball in front of his posts whilst under no pressure.
The Leicester defence stood firm despite threatening half-breaks from Hape and Abendanon, winning a penalty only to give away a scrum by knocking on at the ensuing line-out. Bath's tight-five had their own penalty to crow about after Leicester infringed at the scrum, with James curling the ball between the sticks for a 15-6 half-time lead.
It was the Tigers who struck first after half-time with another Hougaard penalty, before Bath stole a Leicester line-out five-metres from the line. James decided to back himself from a couple of metres out, but was too static when taking the ball before knocking on.
James atoned for his error soon after, collecting a long kick from Dupuy before knocking a grubber behind the Leicester defence. Collecting his own kick, James swapped passes with Joe Maddock before the winger dived in to score a mesmerising and thrilling try. James added the extras for a 22-9 lead.
An incisive break from Dupuy gave Leicester some all-too-rare attacking momentum, with Hougaard continuing the good work before Seru Rabeni looked to have broken the Bath resistance with a powerful run, only for the excellent Andy Beattie to block his path.
They could not hold out further however, as Tom Croft powered over the line after minutes of intense pressure. Hougaard sliced his kick inexplicably wide, giving Bath an unlikely margin of error.
Castrogiovanni limped off injured, and with Stankovich already lost to injury it was uncontested scrum for the final quarter. James' first error came on 68 minutes, as his grubber was charged down for first Hougaard and then Croft to chase. Bath scrum-half Michael Claasens did enough to ensure a knock-on from Croft, granting Bath the chance to clear.
Hougaard narrowed the gap to five points with a textbook drop-goal, setting up a grandstand finish.
After an appalling knock-on from Abendanon gave Leicester position, they laid siege to the Bath line. Some fine, patient phase play saw the ball out to Lewis Moody, who straightened the line superbly before popping the ball to Croft to score his second try. Hougaard made no mistake with the conversion.
Bath flew forward looking for the drop-goal to win the game, and when James attempted to force proceeding his kick was charged down. Hougaard pounced on the loose ball, haring downfield before James recovered. With Bath winning a put-in to the scrum, replacement lock Justin Harrison was penalised for a late shoulder charge, handing the game to the Tigers.
"We didn't play very well, but we saved our best rugby until the end, and our players stuck in there," said Tigers assistant coach Richard Cockerill, standing in for Heyneke Meyer, who is in South Africa to deal with a family illness. "You never give it up at Welford Road, and our players kept on playing. They have been very resilient all week, and the win is massive for us."
It was a contrasting feeling for Bath, with Head Coach Steve Meehan admitting, "The changing room is not the happiest place in the world. A golden opportunity has passed us by. Our front row feels they have been robbed of an opportunity.
"Before the scrums went uncontested, there was a real competition there. I am not saying it was the sole reason we lost the game, but it didn't help us."
Leicester: G. Murphy, J. Murphy, Hipkiss, Mauger, Smith, Hougaard, Dupuy, Stankovich, Kayser, White, Corry, Kay, Croft, Moody, Newby.
Replacements: Chuter, Castrogiovanni, Wentzel, B. Deacon, B. Youngs, Rabeni, Varndell.
Bath: Abendanon, Maddock, Crockett, Hape, Higgins, James, Bemand, Barnes, Dixon, Bell, Hooper, Short, Beattie, Scaysbrook, Browne.
Replacements: Hawkins, Jarvis, Harrison, Claassens, Fuimaono-Sapolu, Cuthbert, Lipman.