Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester given the impossible task

Leicester Tigers number eight Thomas Waldrom. Tiger Images
Leicester Tigers number eight Thomas Waldrom. Tiger Images

How do you do the impossible? How do you beat ASM Clermont Auvergne at home?

It’s a question no rugby side has come up with an answer to for more than four years.

The French Top 14 side have not lost at home for an incredible 70 games at their fortress Stade Marcel Michelin.

The last side to breach Clermont’s bastion of rugby was Biarritz, who won 16-13 way back on November 21, 2009.

But if Leicester are to have a tilt at the Heineken Cup title this year they will have to do the impossible and win away in France after Saturday’s tight 22-19 loss at home to Ulster saw their hopes of a home quarter-final evaporate.

With Tigers club captain Toby Flood and South African international Ruan Pienaar matching each other kick for kick through the first half it took a piece of magic to give Leicester what should have been a winning lead.

With the scores at 12-9 to Leicester, Flood opened up the brutal Ulster defence with a perfectly weighted grubber kick.

The ever alert Niall Morris was on the same wave length as his skipper and the winger beat the chasing covering defender to gather and touch down.

The try was the Irishman’s first of the season and looked to have been his most important for the club yet.

Flood’s conversion gave his side a ten point lead but the irreplaceable Pienaar was done yet.

The scrum half, who went on to be named man of the match, charge-down Flood’s clearance which he gathered and scored before breaking Leicester’s hearts with a huge penalty kick from within his own half.

The South African’s 22 points sealed the win and ended Leicester’s own proud record of having not tasted defeat at home in the Heineken Cup since 2006.

The result means Ulster finished top of Pool 5, undefeated, and took the top seeding for the quarter-finals, setting up a clash with Aviva Premiership leaders Saracens.

Tigers qualified as one of the best runners up.

Should Leicester find a way to get pass Clermont on the first weekend in April, they will face either the Ulstermen or Saracens in the semi-finals.

While it is hard to see how Tigers can beat Clermont’s star-studded squad in their own back yard there are a couple of things working in their favour.

Despite the Top 14 leaders incredible home record they are likely to actually play the match away from their home ground, instead opting for a larger stadium to host the huge number of fans who want to see the epic clash.

The other good news is Leicester have got the monkey off their back about winning in France.

In December Tigers beat Montpellier 15-14 away to snap a seven-year losing streak across the Channel.

Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “We’ll regroup, we have got games before then.

“We go into the quarter-finals with some more bodies back and we will go and fight to the death.”

Despite an air of disappointment surrounding the club’s failure to secure a home semi-final there is still much to be celebrated at Leicester as once again a fresh crop of Tigers players have been included in the 25-man England Saxons training squad to face the Ireland Wolfhounds at Kingsholm on Saturday.

Tigers winger Miles Benjamin had to pull out of the Leicester’s team ahead of the game on Saturday but if fit he has been called up to represent the Saxons again.

The winger played for the Saxons in 2010 when still at Worcester but has not been involved since a terrible run of injuries including a broken neck.

He will be joined by Mat Tait, Graham Kitchener and Jamie Gibson.

The flanker’s elevation since moving to Welford Road from London Irish last summer has been simply incredible.

While he has played for the Saxons before and represented England in an uncapped game against the Barbarians in 2012 he has gone to the next level this season.

Built in the Tom Croft model of flankers, the 6ft 5in 23-year-old has been a vital component in the Leicester machine this season.

One former England player who will not be involved with the Saxons, and not for Leicester too much longer, is number eight Thomas Waldrom.

The New Zealander will be swapping Leicester for Exeter in the summer.

Waldrom, 30, quickly became a fan favourite after joining Tigers from Canterbury Crusaders in 2010. He went on to become an England international in 2012, winning five caps.

But despite scoring 21 tries in 105 appearances for Tigers, bringing Welford Road to its feet with his trademark ‘Tank Engine’ celebration, he has fallen out of favour with the club.

His superb footballing skills are now expected to be replaced by a big, powerful, balling carrying forward.

One player who will be staying put at Leicester is centre Anthony Allen.

The 27-year-old has signed on for three more years after joining the club from Gloucester in 2009.