Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester’s European hopes on a knife edge

Leicester Tigers v Scarlets. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-150120-102656001
Leicester Tigers v Scarlets. Photo: Tiger Images EMN-150120-102656001

Get yours fingers and thumbs and abacuses out - working out how Leicester can progress through to the quarter-finals of the European Rugby Champions Cup takes the mathematical skills of Alan Turing.

In brief their chances are slim and a betting man wouldn’t put a lot of money on it.

Tigers gave themselves the best possible chance with a bonus-point 40-23 victory over the Scarlets at Welford Road on Friday night.

Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill’s unshackled his side and asked them to go on the attack.

They answered with six tries and their most impressive attacking performance of the season, albeit against an injury ravaged Scarlets side.

Tigers are now back to near full strength and were in no mood for messing around. Before the break Leicester scored two contrasting tries of beauty. First the ball was whipped along the line with quick hands to release Miles Benjamin into the corner and then Jordan Crane, who carried well all night, rode a perfectly constructed Leicester maul into touch down in the other corner.

In the second half Adam Thompstone crossed before replacement hooker Tom Youngs made an instant impact, touching down another maul try before taking a scoring pass from his brother Ben for the second.

Ben Youngs was at his attacking, snipping best, asking questions of the Scarlets defence all night.

His performance was well timed with the announcement of the England squad yesterday. He joins his brother, prop Dan Cole and second rows Geoff Parling and Graham Kitchener from Leicester in the England set-up. Manu Tuilagi is still recovering from his groin injury which is taking much longer to repair than first thought. Tom Croft had an outstanding performance for Leicester on Friday, showing he can do the ugly stuff as well as the more glamorous, and made the Saxons squad.

Replacement scrum half Sam Harrison completed the scoring after a brilliant display of power from Italian back rower Robert Barbieri.

The number eight and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini were named in Italy’s Six Nations squad this week.

Fly-half Owen Williams was somewhat harshly left out of Warren Galtand’s Welsh squad for the tournament.

After the match Cockerill said: “We are happy with the win, it was a relatively good performance. We were clinical when we needed to be. We got what we wanted and it gives us a fighting chance for next week.”

Predicting results is the fastest way to look like an idiot in sport but in this situation it is kind of necessary.

As it stands after round five Tigers sit in 12th place in the rankings with the top eight going through.

Currently heading the groups are Racing Metro, Toulon, Clermont. Leinster and Toulouse with Northampton, Saracens and Wasps holding the best three runners-up spots. Also ahead of Leicester are Bath with 15 points, Glasgow with 14, and Harlequins also with 13 but better off through points difference.

But there is still a lot of rugby to be played and the groups could look very different by Sunday night.

If Leicester do the unlikely and get a bonus point win away at Ulster then they will finish with 18 points.

The only team with a guaranteed place in the quarter-finals are Tigers’ Pool 3 opponents Toulon who can not be caught. The rest of the places are up for grabs.

So prediction time - Clermont will beat Saracens in France to top Pool 1 with 22 points, Wasps will beat Leinster at the Ricoh to top Pool 2 with 22 points, Leinster will get a losing bonus point to finish with 19 points. Northampton Saints will beat Racing Metro to win Pool 5 with 23 points, meaning Racing will finish with a minimum of 19.

The big question is Pool 4 where Toulouse must now win away at Montpellier, where they lost 23-20 in the Top 14 on December, to top the group ahead of a resurgent Bath. They will be helped by the fact that Montpellier having nothing to play for but pride. Despite the fact French clubs have unbelievable home records the four time European champions must be favourites in a must win encounter. Leicester could do with Toulouse losing. The winner of Bath (15) v Glasgow (14) at the Rec would then finish top. If Bath win with a bonus point they will be through anyway.

In the scenario above Leicester would miss out, if Wasps were to lose or Leinster not get a bonus point then the door would open a crack.

If Toulouse were to lose they would finish on either 16 or 17 points meaning they would likely miss out, again opening the door a little further.

However Harlequins, also on 13 points, are ahead of Leicester on points difference meaning they are next in line if miracles start happening and they can beat whipping boys Castres away with a bonus point.

There are so many permutations that really anything can happen. In truth Leicester messed up when they lost away at Scarlets in the second round. When Miles Benjamin threw the ball to no one on his own line he essentially threw away Tigers’ chances of progression.

Cockerill said: “Ravenhill is a difficult place to go. We are going to need five points to qualify and even that may not be enough.

“To go to Ravenhill and win is one thing. That would be an achievement. To go there and score four tries and get five points is a big ask, but we will see. If we have to go there with that mind set and have a crack at it we will see what we have to do.”