Inside the Tigers’ Den - Harry Thacker writing his own underdog story at Leicester

Harry Thacker in action for Leicester Tigers against Exeter Chiefs. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-160803-123858001

Harry Thacker in action for Leicester Tigers against Exeter Chiefs. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-160803-123858001

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Have you ever seen the movie Rudy? It’s one of the greatest sports films ever made. The 1993 film directed by David Anspaugh stars Sean Astin, also known as a hobbit, as Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger in a near true life story of his quest to play for one of the greatest American football colleges the University of Notre Dame.

In the film, Rudy, who is judged to be too small for American football, a game played by giants, gets his shot in the climactic final scene and leaves his mark.

Right here in Leicester we have our own underdog story emerging.

Rather than the heralded fields of Notre Dame, Oval Park is the setting and Harry Thacker is in the lead role - just as he was at Welford Road on Sunday when he earned the man of the match award in Leicester Tigers’ 31-27 victory over Exeter Chiefs.

Despite England international and British Lion Manu Tuilagi catching the eye with some thunderous hits and a nice try, and the likes of the world’s best prop Marcos Ayerza on the pitch - it was Thacker who was named the best player.

At just 5ft 8in Thacker is one of the smallest professional forwards playing in the Aviva Premiership, although at 14st 11lb he still packs plenty of punch. At the moment he is playing at hooker, but has also been known to pack down at flanker, a position many feel will be his natural position in years to come.

Thacker is for some, the great seven hope of English rugby, say it in whispered venerated words but perhaps, the next Neil Back.

At 5ft 11ins and just 14st 8lb, Back won the Rugby World Cup with England in 2003 and won 71 international caps, seven of those for the Lions. Athletes have got bigger and stronger since then but one thing remains true - if you are good enough you are big enough. That is if you have a forward thinking coach at the helm.

For now Thacker is at hooker, a position which Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill played his entire career, so he should know.

Thacker is also the son of a Tigers hooker as well, Troy, so has plenty of role models to learn his trade from. Not to mention former England and Lions hooker Tom Youngs, who is first choice at the club, and Italian international Leonardo Ghirildini.

Youngs in fact is a very good role model, at just an inch taller and, albeit weighing at 16st 5lbs, he has proven that a smaller dynamic man can make it at international and club level, having skippered the club earlier this season.

Youngs, who is out at the moment with a back injury, is one of the best ruckers and tacklers in world rugby, but Thacker has better hands, better feet and is more importantly a better line out thrower.

On Sunday the 22 year-old looked to have scored a try at the back of a driving maul, how very Neil Back, in the end it was given as a penalty try, and set-up another with a pin-point line out throw to the back of a lineout, to execute a planned move which saw Adam Thompstone burst through the middle of the forwards to score.

At half time against Exeter, when Tigers were leading 17-6 , Thacker was announced as the Goldsmiths Player of the Month for February, as voted by the fans as his star continues to rise. How high, we will have to wait and see.

Peter Betham scored the other try for Leicester, finishing a break out move from distance.

But Exeter, who sit second in the table, showed why they are such a dangerous side, fighting back to earn a bonus point thanks to tries from Dave Lewis, Ian Whitten and Kai Horstmann.

The victory moved Leicester up to third in the Aviva Premiership table with Wasps, Tigers’ opponents next weekend in Coventry, dropping out of the play off position following their 13-10 loss to Gloucester. On Saturday Wasps looked strangely off colour but having destroyed Saracens on their own patch, and beat defending European champions Toulon, the new noisy neighbours are arguably the most dangerous side in the Northern hemisphere. So Leicester will have to be at their best if they want anything from the game.

Cockerill said: “This (victory over Exeter) gives us the chance to go to Wasps next week on a high, then we play Saracens and Sale so we have a tough run coming up. Everyone would like us to lose and fall away but we will dig in there, and everyone can decide whether we’ve turned a corner here.”

“Our physicality was good all game, and certainly early on the set-piece worked well for us. I thought we took our opportunities well and obviously scoring four tries to take a bonus-point win from a clash with Exeter is an excellent result.

“Both sides had guys missing but our intent to play I thought was outstanding, although I am disappointed at the end there to have let them back in the game and given them a point at the end.

“I am a little frustrated with that, but it was a fantastic result and a fantastic game of rugby - physical, fast, and furious.

“We knew Exeter were going to come back into the game at some point, and they did, but thankfully we gave ourselves a big enough lead to ride that storm.”