Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester make it to European quarters

Leicester Tigers centre Anthony Allen is back from injury. Tiger Images
Leicester Tigers centre Anthony Allen is back from injury. Tiger Images

Tigers are through to the knock-out stages of Europe once again, and they did it without the majority of their growing England contingent.

Leicester produced a powerful second-half performance to beat Benetton Treviso 34-19 in the Heineken Cup on Saturday and secured a crucial bonus-point victory.

Mat Tait in action for Leicester Tigers. Tiger Images

Mat Tait in action for Leicester Tigers. Tiger Images

With Ulster failing to secure a bonus point win over Montpellier, Leicester have now set up a titanic match at home to the Irish side on Saturday to decide who wins the group and secure a home match in the quarter-finals of the competition.

With discussions on the future of the tournament seemingly at a stalemate, it seems this year’s Heineken Cup could be the last.

If that proves to be the case it will be a crying shame because the colossal clashes the competition creates, between sides like Ulster and Tigers, are a wonder to behold.

What’s is more the tournament has finally matured into a cup where there are no weak sides or easy draws.

For years the Italian clubs were seen as an automatic bonus point win for Europe’s big boys but as Treviso proved emphatically last weekend that has changed.

Yes Leicester won, and yes they got a bonus point thanks to tries from Julian Salvi, a Miles Benjamin brace and penalty try, but they had to work hard for it.

Tigers were 12 points down early in the second period at the Stadio di Monigo but where able to turn on the power to secure the win.

With Leicester’s injury woes beginning to ease they were also able to turn to an impressive bench of replacements to change the match’s momentum.

No-one made more of an impact than club vice-captain Anthony Allen who came close to stealing the show from the impressive Miles Benjamin.

With England head coach Stuart Lancaster naming his Six Nations training squad last week, the duo put in a timely reminder that they should not be overlooked.

It was mixed news for the club from the squad announcement.

As expected club captain Toby Flood, who is expected to join French Top 14 side Toulouse in the summer, was dropped for Leicester’s former fly-half prodigy George Ford.

With England’s policy not to select players playing outside the Aviva Premiership, the move was widely expected.

Ford, now at Bath, has kicked-on to become a top premiership fly-half after getting regular rugby.

Once again a England manager has turned to Leicester for an international second-row.

Ed Slater, who was selected to tour Argentina with England in the summer before getting injured, has been given a second chance to make an impact.

The call-up completes a remarkable story for the backrow, come lock, who like club and now international team mate Tom Youngs, has risen to the top of the professional game the hard way.

At 6ft 7in and more than 18st Slater has a physical presence to match any international lock, combined with the mobility of backrow.

What’s more is Slater has a presence on the field, and a stare to match Leicester’s most famous second row Martin Johnson.

Like Johnson, Slater developed his game in the southern hemisphere.

After starting his carer at Milton Keynes Rugby Club he joined Australian side Eastern Suburbs RUFC, in Sydney,

After impressive performances as a junior he signed a temporary contact with the NSW Waratahs before returning to England.

After a short trial with Leicester Tigers he joined Nottingham and impressed enough to earn a Tigers contract in 2010.

Since then Slater has gone on to become a vital component of the Leicester pack, playing 82 games for the defending Aviva Champions.

However his call-up from the Saxons squad has come at the expense of team mate Geoff Parling who is out of the reckoning because of a shoulder injury.

Slater joins colleagues Dan Cole, and Ben and Tom Youngs in the England Six Nations squad.

The injured Parling, Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft all remain in the England Senior Elite Player Squad, indicting they all remain a big part of Lancester’s plans leading to the 2015 World Cup in England.

However there will be a number of Leicester players disappointed not to get a full England call-up after strong starts to the season.

Second-row Graham Kitchener, centre Allen and full back Mat Tait all have to make do with just a spot in the Saxons squad.

An honour not even afforded to Mile Benjamin, who has been overlooked despite being a revelation since returning from long-term injury.

Benjamin’s long-range finish against Treviso was just a snap shot of what the powerful, fast and agile winger offers.

Tait and Allen have had relatively little playing time this season because of injury but have looked amongst the best in the league, if not the world, in their positions when they have played.

One in imagines they are all just an injury away from getting a call-up to the big show and with another brutal round of the Heineken Cup coming up at the weekend you never know what may happen.