When Julian Salvi crashed over the try line at just before four o’clock on Saturday 27th December, Leicester Tigers fans thought they were unwrapping a fortunate, if late, Christmas gift. With Owen Williams’ conversion came a (let’s be honest) surprising away win at Sale’s AJ Bell Stadium and, having seen Cipriani weave his magic earlier in the match, the Tigers faithful would have retreated from the North-West really quite chuffed with the W against their name.
But, that wasn’t the gift they’d been given. As they trundled back down the A50, chuckling to themselves at just how they’d stolen the show from Steve Diamond’s Sharks, the present they’d received was slowly starting to manifest itself on the team bus.
Because there are moments in a season which are conspicuous. Those that jump up and down and shout at you; matches that contain outrageous pieces of skill, fleet of foot foxtrotting, pin point penalty pilfering, and the most gut busting of last minute tackles. All of which tell you that your team has a chance. That they are contenders. That those fifteen, twenty-three, forty or so men can get you that silverware. And then there are those that slip under the radar.
And up in Salford, that Saturday after Christmas, could have been just such an occasion. Because born that day (or maybe it should have been reborn) was some good, old fashioned, Leicestershire self belief. Its genesis has been a long time coming. The wilderness that has been the early part of the season for Dicky C and his men, has been barren. The gnomic maestro has travelled to some of rugby’s furthest outposts in his role as Tigers’ DoR. Bath beating you 45-0 is a long way out. London Irish (who rarely beat anyone) turning up and handing you a hiding on your own front lawn is further still. There was losing at Gloucester, who had, prior to that encounter, looked like a team put together overnight; then the narrow win against Quins and an ‘Eh? It should never have been that narrow, what are we doing?’ win over London Welsh. Even when it was good – the home win against Toulon in Europe – Cockers had to endure a former employee turning up at his victorious press conference and inviting everyone to see him next Tuesday. So, as I say, it’s been tough.
So no wonder then, as Welshman Williams calmly slotted the winning extra points and referee Wigglesworth brought the game to a close up in Salford, Cockerill’s strut stiffened immeasurably.
Let’s roll forward seven days. And who should traipse into town but the impish figure of Mike Ford. With him, the men of Bath. So good, they can name a twenty-three man squad without saying Gavin Henson. So dope, their back row call each other Leroy and Garvey and Sisi. Forty-five problems for Tigers fans and the Sparkly Eyed Man was one of them.
As the afternoon unfolded, it should have been all about Bath. But it wasn’t. Leicester, reborn by that resolve found a week previous, stood toe to toe. Feeling the heat back in their bones, the men in green rose to their former height. They rolled back their shoulders and waved away any thoughts of what had come before. They battered the Bath line, pelting the westcountrymen with everything they could muster. They had more tackle than Hemingway. They fought and tussled, wrestled and shoved. They would have given Old Man Santiago a run for his money.
Bath, seemingly, amidst all of this furore, forgot how to pass. They got drawn in by the scrap, got bullied out of the game and young George Ford, the former Welford Road whipper snapper, forgot all of his lines from the kicking tee. The Tigers’ faithful were dancing. If it could have, the MET-Rx Stand would have, well, done a caterpillar.
This was the Tigers of old. This was hard graft and grit and never give them an inch. This was Leicester before the press were more interested in when players would be back from injury. This was Leicester back to their challenging, churlish, cheating (the Bath fans said), wonderful best.
But don’t forget this happened just after Christmas, up at Sale. ‘The Christmas Sale’. Where you are never quite sure what you will find.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.