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England new boys impress as Leicester Tigers exorcise demons in win over Wasps

·6-min read
Leicester - Getty Images Europe 
Leicester - Getty Images Europe

Wasps 31 Leicester Tigers 38

If there was any doubt left, the Leicester Tigers turn-around is for real. Just nine months and three days after being thrashed 54-7 at the same venue, Steve Borthwick’s side celebrated their qualification for next season’s European Champions Cup by outlasting Wasps to win an entertaining contest in Coventry.

Whereas last September’s midweek humiliation suggested that Borthwick had inherited a club with further to sink, this victory encouraged the happier question of how high – and how quickly – Tigers may rise. After a sixth-place finish in 2020-21, a play-off berth must be an outside possibility next year.

“It was a pretty sobering event, that Wednesday night,” said Borthwick of his last visit to the Ricoh Arena. “It showed where we’ve been. But I think sometimes you have to go through that pain to learn. I don’t want to go through that experience again.”

Borthwick has promoted promising youngsters and re-established tactical clarity for Leicester. Fittingly, then, Tigers’ cubs excelled. George Martin, the youngest member of England’s 34-man training squad, grafted to a stand-still. Fellow 19-year-old Dan Kelly, also in Eddie Jones’ summer plans, impressed as well.

Not to be outdone by fresher-faced colleagues, veteran Dan Cole was one of Leicester’s five try-scorers with Cameron Henderson, Matt Scott, Julian Montoya and Tomas Lavanini also crossing the whitewash. Johnny McPhillips, faultless from the tee, kicked 13 points.

Getty Images Europe  - Getty Images Europe 
Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

Wasps certainly played their part on a compelling afternoon in bright sunshine, eventually netting two bonus points to qualify for the Champions Cup themselves. Indeed, they opened the scoring through Sione Vailanu’s pick-and-go.

Robust counter-rucking from Cole derailed another promising Wasps foray, and proved to stir Leicester. Nemani Nadolo chased Zack Henry’s up-and-under and forced a turnover before Kelly danced past two defenders on the back of a messy scrum. His offload was gathered skilfully by a stooping Cameron Henderson, who stretched over to score.

All in all, 10 members of the 34-man England training squad were on show.¬¬ The next to catch the eye was the youngest. Martin slipped out of Kieran Brookes’ tackle after the restart and loped up-field before offloading to Johnny McPhillips. Again, a Tigers scrum produced the telling platform. With the thundering Nadolo used as a decoy, McPhillips released a slicing Scott.

It felt perverse, and emblematic of conflicting recruitment strategies prior to Borthwick’s arrival at Welford Road, that two members of Leicester’s backline – both specialist fly-halves, to boot – had announced their respective departures earlier in the week.

Both are heading to France, McPhillips trading the East Midlands for Carcassonne and Henry joining Pau. The latter, lively and resourceful over his short stint as a Leicester player, started at full-back with Freddie Steward shifting to the right wing. Meanwhile, five of Wasps’ pack, including the entire front row, were playing their final games for the hosts.

Jacob Umaga - Getty Images Europe 
Jacob Umaga - Getty Images Europe

Umaga, the sole fly-half in England’s latest squad, tied up proceedings on the half-hour mark. He gathered a cute grubber from Marcus Watson out wide and beat Leicester’s cover defence in a race for the whitewash. Leicester would respond, though.

First Robson crept offside from a Tigers scrum, allowing McPhillips to slot three from the tee. Next, the Leicester maul rumbled close. Cole trundled off the tail and wriggled across the grass. Television match official Tom Foley and referee Luke Pearce were satisfied that the tighthead prop had registered his first club try in six years. Although McPhillips’s conversion earned an extra two, Wasps hit back immediately.

Josh Bassett, another of Jones’ call-ups, recovered the restart and Worcester-bound Vailanu ripped through the Leicester midfield. Wasps might have been frustrated to not be ahead at half-time, too. Umaga punted across the Tigers 22 towards Watson from a late penalty, but it was under-hit and Nadolo gathered.

The scoring spree continued when the players re-emerged. Jack van Poortvliet, who will play for England Under-20 rather than the seniors this summer, enjoyed a compelling tussle with Robson. Five minutes into the second half, he sniped around the fringe of a ruck, slipped through two tackles and offloaded to hooker Julian Montoya.

Tigers had a bonus point. Typically, on a tit-for-tat afternoon, Wasps promptly bagged one of their own. Will Rowlands, moving to Dragons over the summer, cut an angle off Umaga’s shoulder and strode 25 metres to the try-line.

Zack Henry - Getty Images Europe 
Zack Henry - Getty Images Europe

As the final quarter began, Henry was sin-binned after inadvertently flipping Watson in a tackle. Wasps sensed blood but Kini Murimurivalu, on for Nadolo, swooped to steal in the shadow of his own posts. Before Leicester were restored to 15 men, Steward hacked through a loose ball and Matias Moroni’s tackle on Jimmy Gopperth eked out a five-metre scrum. A penalty followed and Tomas Lavanini scored from close range.

Wasps remained expansive and worked up pitch in the final exchanges. That field position allowed Umaga to salvage a second bonus point with a penalty. Borthwick and his team had done enough, though. And, as Eddie Jones has suggested, a strong Leicester would bode well for England.

Scoring (Wasps first): 5-0 Vailanu try, 7-0 Umaga con, 7-5 Henderson try, 7-7 McPhillips con, 7-12 Scott try, 7-14 McPhillips con, 12-14 Umaga try, 14-14- Umaga con, 14-17 McPhillips con, 14-22 Cole try, 14-24 McPhillips con, 19-24 Vailanu try, 21-24 Umaga con, 21-29 Montoya try, 21-31 McPhillips con, 26-31 Rowlands try, 28-31 Umaga con, 28-36 Lavanini try, 28-38 McPhillips con, 31-38 Umaga pen

Wasps: R Miller (Le Bourgeois, 75); M Watson, M Fekitoa (J de Jongh, 74), M Le Bourgeois (J Gopperth, 58), J Bassett; J Umaga, D Robson; S McIntyre (B Harris,, 74), T Taylor (T Cruse, 59), K Brookes, (J Toomaga-Allen, 52) W Rowlands, J Gaskell (T Taylor 78), T Willis (T Cardall, 56), B Shields, S Vailanu (G Oghre, 50)

Leicester Tigers: Z Henry; F Steward, M Scott, D Kelly (M Moroni, 65), N Nadolo (K Murimurivalu, 52); J McPhillips, J van Poortvliet (B Youngs, 52); E Genge (J Whitcombe,, 74), J Montoya (C Clare, 53), D Cole (J Heyes, 56), H Wells, C Henderson (T Lavanini, 60), G Martin, H Liebenberg, J Wiese (O Chessum, 58)

Yellow card: Henry, 61
Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)
Attendance: 7,149