Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester claim piece of European history

Ryan Lamb in action for Leicester Tigers. Tiger Images
Ryan Lamb in action for Leicester Tigers. Tiger Images
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If Leicester go on to lift the Heineken Cup in May they will look back on yesterday’s (Sunday) 15-14 victory over Montpellier as a key moment in the campaign.

The win was a much-needed bit of Heineken Cup history making for Tigers whose last victory across the Channel came way back in December, 2006 when Leicester beat Bourgoin.

Tom Youngs throwing in to the Leicester Tigers line out. Tiger Images

Tom Youngs throwing in to the Leicester Tigers line out. Tiger Images

In many ways Sunday’s match epitomised everything good about the European competition, and should this be the last year English club participate - it will be a sad loss, because there was incredible skill, drama and passion on display.

Remarkably it took 50 minutes for a single point to be scored by either side but the fireworks exploded in the second half after Tom Youngs scored after picking a great line to power his way past three defenders.

So many times in the past Tigers have been in a position to win these key matches and have let them slip through their fingers. And so it seemed on Sunday.

First Miles Benjamin, who is proving to be a great signing for the club, poked the very toe of his boot in touch on his way to the try line and was called back. Leicester then lost the lead after conceding two fairly cheap tries with the first just two minutes after Leicester had taken the lead from fly-half Enzo Selponi and the second 10 minutes later from winger Lucas Dupont.

But with just 40 seconds to spare Vereniki Goneva crossed the line to seal his place in Tigers’ history books.

This was a game where many of Leicester’s players came of age and stepped up when it mattered. Ben Youngs had probably his best game since returning from the British Lions, looking sharp around the edge of the rucks and pinging miss-passes to release runners in the backs - the most prominent and deadly being Goneva.

Thomas Waldrom, who got a surprise start at number eight despite Jordan Crane having a colossal game last week, also had one of his best performances of the season, continually putting Leicester on the front foot with his deceivingly nimble-footed breaks.

But what is more impressive is how some of Leicester’s less established players are emerging into big game players - possibly even Sir Ian McGeechan’s fabled “test match animals” of the future.

Graham Kitchener continued to grow in stature, leading the line-out with class. Tom Youngs was also at his bristly, powerful best and Jamie Gibson has proved to be an able long-term replacement for the injured Tom Croft, who is out for the rest of the season with a knee ligament injury.

It was also Ryan Lamb’s chance to shine, kicking a mammoth penalty and converting the last-gasp try to seal the win.

His 26 minute cameo, as a replacement for Toby Flood who worryingly limped off with what appears to be a hamstring injury, was the most significant of his brief Tigers career.

Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill was full of praise for his players.

He said: “Tom Youngs was unbelievable, Jamie Gibson in the last four or five weeks has been outstanding, Graham Kitchener has again stepped up, and the whole squad did a great job.

“I’m delighted for the players. We have not won in France for seven years and this group of players made a little bit of history for themselves.

“Any win in France is a big win. The result gives us everything to play for and also puts a spring in the squad’s step when they come back in for training and that is important.”

The victory keeps Tigers in second place in Pool 5, three points behind Ulster, with the group winners likely to be decided in the final game of qualifying against the Irish province at Welford Road.

The win was also Leicester’s sixth consecutive win in all competitions, which has put their ailing season well and truly back on track.

Next up is a daunting visit away to top of the Aviva Premiership side Saracens.