There was some deeply sad news out of Welford Road last week, as much loved prop Marcos Ayerza announced his retirement from professional rugby due to a back injury, ending an illustrious 11 seasons at Welford Road.
During his career Ayerza made 66 Test appearances for Argentina and was widely regarded as the best loosehead in the world for a number of years. He played 246 first-team games for Leicester and was part of a squad that won four Premiership titles, played in two European Cup Finals and has been part of two Anglo-Welsh Cup-winning squads.
Ayerza, 34, said: “I have been extremely proud to represent Leicester Tigers and Argentina for so many seasons and enjoyed every minute of that long journey.”
“Leicester Tigers is an amazing club and I have been very fortunate to play here for the last 11 seasons, playing in so many big occasions and with so many great players.”
However his heir apparent, Englishman Ellis Genge, stepped up to a new level on Saturday in a two try performance for Tigers in a bonus point victory over Newcastle Falcons at Welford Road.
Genge was bristling with aggression and power as he helped dismantle the Falcons’ pack in the scrum, which saw David Wilson sin binned for repeated offences in the set piece.
That yellow card in the 46th minute proved to be the turning point in the game as well as Tigers had struggled to break down the stubborn Newcastle defence up to that point, with the score just 11-3.
It was Genge who crossed the line for the first try in injury time just before the break. Leicester moved the ball at speed and were held up just before the line. But Genge showed why he is one of the most dangerous forwards in the game from close range as he picked from the back of a ruck just a metre out and powered through the attempted tackle, with some help from the Tiger forwards behind him to get over the line. With Newcastle a man down, Leicester took just two minutes to strike with some quick handling from the backs setting full back Telusa Veainu free to speed over for his fourth league try of the season.
In the final seconds of the yellow card the Youngs brothers combined to open up the Falcons and eventually send Genge over the line.
First Tom Youngs made a drive into the 22, passing back to his brother Ben who instantly offloaded to international team mate Dan Cole. Cole drove for the line but came up short. However the ball was instantly recycled and Genge crashed over after coming from deep.
The prop then sparked a melee which involved half the players on the pitch after he slammed the ball down on the head of a Newcastle player. Only the firm intervention of Brendon O’Connor kept the 22-year-old out of getting into real trouble.
This is a man who does not take a backward step on a rugby pitch. Ayerza was not of the same mould but if the former Bristol-man has half the career he will go down as a club great.
The best score of the game was still to come. In the 72nd minute scrum half Ben Youngs gave Lions head coach Warren Gatland a timely reminder of what he can do with a truly world-class finish, taking a quick tap penalty and outpacing and stepping at least five defenders on his way to the line.
Leicester started the day tied on points with Bath in the race for fourth place, ahead only on points difference. It was widely agreed a place in the play-offs would come down to who could score the most bonus points in their remaining three games but Bath gave Tigers an early present on Saturday afternoon as they slipped up at Worcester Warriors, losing 25-19.
That means Leicester’s fate is in their own hands, with a top-four finish ensured if they win their last two games against Sale Sharks and Warriors.
Returning director of rugby Matt O’Connor, who was overseeing his first home game in the top job at the club, certainly thinks his side have more to give at the business end of the season.
He said: “I think we have 25, 30, 40 per cent growth in us, so it will be interesting to see how we go in the next two games.
“If we look after the ball, four, five, six times better, you are talking about those numbers. We are good enough to beat anyone.”
“It was tough. They were competitive and made it hard for us to get any continuity in the first half. The try on half-time and Ben Youngs’ tackle on Goneva probably set us up for the win.”
Youngs’ tackle was certainly a pivotal moment as former Tiger Vereniki Goneva looked certain to score before the scrum half put in a huge hit to stop him in his tracks.
And yesterday British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland announced the 2017 touring squad to face the world’s best team New Zealand this summer.
Ben Youngs and Dan Cole kept Leicester’s rich Lions heritage alive by being named as Lions once again.
Today - England head coach Eddie Jones named his England squad for the two test tour of Argentina this summer.
Prop Genge was the only Tiger included, with flanker Mike Williams surprisingly not included despite training with the elite squad for most of the last year.
Genge has just one cap, but with Mako Vunipola, Cole and Joe Marler all heading to the Land of the Long White Cloud with the Lions there are plenty of opportunities for players on the periphery and few have been playing better than Genge.