Leicester Tigers are racking up the records, but not the ones that English rugby’s most successful club are used to.
On Saturday Leicester broke a 10 game winning streak over London Irish in all competitions with a controversial 22-19 loss at home to Welford Road.
It was Irish’s first win at Welford Road in the Aviva Premiership since 2003 and just their third ever over the Tigers in the league.
But to say Leicester were robbed would be an understatement and at the final whistle the club’s combative but honest director of rugby Richard Cockerill was left fuming at the decisions of referee Greg Garner.
Cockerill was left bewildered at Garner’s first half decision not to red card London Irish openside flanker Blair Cowan when he punched Tigers blindside Jamie Gibson in the face following a melee coming up from a scrum.
The Leicester man, who joined from Irish in the summer of 2013, initiated the incident by holding Cowan round the neck but came second best in what was to follow.
Garner consulted the video referee and watched on one of the two giant screens in the stadium, along with 21,000 fans bursting into chants of “off, off, off” when they saw the replays. However Garner pulled the players together, gave them a telling off and then reversed the penalty in Leicester’s favour without even issuing a yellow.
After the match Cockerill said: “I could see it on the big screen from 50 metres away. Their player punched our player in the face. That’s fine - if we are going to play by those rules.
“Next week, if our player punches one of theirs in the face, is that going to be just a penalty?
“If that is okay, we need to revamp that (the rules). In the semi-final last season, a punch in the face is a red card.
“That’s not right. He needs to be accurate. I don’t want any sympathy, I just want it to be refereed properly.”
“I need to understand from the officials what the regulations are if a punch in the face is just a penalty and a ticking off. I thought that was an automatic red card.
“I didn’t think he [the referee] had a good performance today and I am unhappy with the way that he officiated.
“That was a crucial part of the game. Greg Garner thinks it is okay to punch someone in the face and that is just a penalty.”
Leicester must have walked under some ladders, crossed a black cat and broken a dozen mirrors because luck really has deserted them. Playing without 21 players either injured, suspended or on international duty, they were well in the game but two second half incidents with Garner at the centre again effectively cost them the game.
With the scores tied at 16-16 Leicester number eight Jordan Crane was shown a yellow card for dropping a shoulder into a player on the wrong side of the ruck a split second after the whistle. For a pedantic referee it was probably a yellow but it’s an incident which is seen time and time again without punishment in the Aviva Premiership and considering the leniency shown for a punch earlier in the match seemed somewhat harsh.
It also cost Tigers three points with red hot Shane Geraghty striking the kick with ease.
The final controversial act of the game came in the 77th minute when Tigers’ Mat Tait was incorrectly penalised for playing the ball on the ground. The full back made a last ditch tackle on opposite number Andy Fenby. While on the ground Fenby tried to pop up the ball, as is within his right, but Garner thought Tait had played the ball, giving Geraghty an easy chance to kick a match winning penalty.
The incensed crowd broke the Welford Road convention of being silent for the kickers and booed their hearts out as Geraghty scored.
Being a referee is one of the hardest jobs in the world but it was an incorrect decision with significant ramifications.
However despite the controversial decisions it should not be forgotten that Leicester heavily contributed to their own downfall.
Freddie Burns confirmed the worst fears of many Tigers fans, having a real off day with the boot as he is accustomed to sometimes do. Why Owen Williams wasn’t given the kicking duties earlier is a question to be asked. He certainly had no problem with a massive 55-metre penalty to make it 19-19 when he was asked to kick.
Irish had a try marked off for blocking in the first half and Leicester’s only try was fortuitous. Vereniki Goneva found a hole no one else had seen when he picked the ball up from a ruck and went darting through the middle of the Irish defence. It was a good moment of invention but once again there were very few dangerous attacking opportunities created by the Leicester backs.
Cockerill is hoping for more bodies back next week, with the likes of Brad Thorn, Seremaia Bai and Logo Mulipola on the verge of a return for when his side take on Gloucester at Kingsholm.
A crumb of comfort for despairing fans is it could be worse - you could be a Toulouse fan. Former Tigers captain Toby Flood’s new club have now lost five games on the bounce in the French Top 14 a record which dates back to 1961.