Leicester made a statement of intent with one of their most complete performances of the season to beat Bath 17-8 on Sunday, revenging a humiliating 45-0 loss in round three of the Aviva Premiership.
As the league season passed the midway point Tigers’ victory over second in the league Bath kept them in fifth place in the league, separated only by points difference with new noisy neighbours Wasps who demolished Sale 41-16 in Coventry to go fourth.
Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “That was a massive win for us and sends a bullet across the bows of the others.”
“We needed to win and that puts us right back in the [Premiership] mix. We wanted it more than they did. If we were going to turn our season round, we needed to play.”
There was nothing flashy about the Tigers’ performance, but it was gritty, impassioned and organised. In a game full of feisty confrontations Leicester restricted one of the league’s most dangerous attacking sides to only scraps of attacking opportunities.
Tom Youngs went over at the bottom of a maul in the first half for Leicester and Owen Williams kicked 12 points to win the kicking duel with former Tigers favourite George Ford who could only kick one of his shots at goal.
Bath scored a consolation try with a drive of their own in the final minute of the game to get Ross Batty over the line to bring some respectability to the score but it wasn’t enough to muster a losing bonus point. It could have been but Ford rushed his conversion effort which would have brought a valuable point.
The win was another feather in the cap of Welsh fly-half Williams who again showed the game management and maturity which has won him the starting spot at Leicester and many plaudits this season.
This week the 22-year-old, who has scored 318 points in 40 appearances since arriving from the Scarlets, signed a new extended deal with Leicester despite huge interest from the Welsh regions to bring him back to the Pro 12.
It’s no wonder the Scarlets were hot in pursuit of their former star with the news this week that their star fly-half and Welsh international Rhys Priestland will join Bath after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Despite his international reputation Priestland is likely to play second fiddle to Ford at Bath, with the club, lead by his father Mike, gelling well with the young Englishman at the fulcrum of their attack.
Priestland is currently second in the pecking order in the Warren Gatland’s Wales squad behind the Osprey’s Dan Biggar, but reduced playing time could see him slip further down the order with Williams the man most likely to fill the void and perhaps even get that starting jersey off the 25-year-old from Swansea.
Williams typified Leicester’s performance on Sunday, showing composure and commitment without setting the world alight.
The backs performed extremely well with Miles Benjamin particularly excelling on the wing against some dangerous opponents. After some clangers earlier in the season the England Saxon is looking more composed in all areas of his game and was a defensive wall at the weekend.
But the game was won through the forwards, starting with the front row of Marcos Ayerza, Tom Youngs and Fraser Balmain, who got on the right side of the referee early on to win countless scrum penalties and generally win the arm wrestle.
Leicester’s success was built on extraordinary rucking. A common sight this season has been Tigers scrum half Ben Youngs trying to dig the ball out from underneath numerous bodies, but on Sunday players were blasted out the way and the ball slammed down well clear of the chaos for the England half back to unleash his backs.
Cockerill said: “Our discipline was good and the niggle was good. You want two sides who want to put their bodies on the line. Bath are a very physical team, the only way to meet physicality is with physicality and we felt we didn’t do that at the Rec and I felt we did that tonight [Sunday].”
He added: “We got bullied a bit at the break down [at Northampton], they honed in a bit more than we did and we needed to put that right but the last couple weeks have been good.
“We have watched a few clips of us playing and getting bullied at the break down and it was time to sort it out. You show the clips and you don’t have to say anything, people can look at themselves and say, one, I don’t want to be that person who is soft at the breakdown and two if they do it too often I won’t pick them again. It’s a pretty simple philosophy. Do what you need to do and be as tough as you need to be or don’t play.”
One of those players not playing was England flanker Tom Croft who was not selected for the match on fitness grounds according to the Tigers boss. With Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Logo Mulipola still set to come back into the mix from injury Cockerill believes his side still have a shot at the title.
Cockerill said: “The point will be proven when we get to the end of May and who lifts that trophy. We want that to be us, how realistic that is I’m sure you will remind me.
“The players drive the team, no player really plays for their coach they play for their team mates, and what they want to do. This team want to play for their team mates and they want to win the title. And they’re driving that. I’m kicking it along the way a little bit but the players should take the credit for today. It’s their team, their club their win.”