He could hardly say he hadn’t been warned. Dean Richards was Leicester’s director of rugby when the Tigers signed Freddie Tuilagi, the eldest of the six professional rugby-playing brothers, from St Helens in 2000 and all these years later the youngest of the brood, Manu, helped dismantle Richards’s current team, Newcastle, in a five-try Premiership beating.
Richards’ fantastically successful time as a Leicester player – his last appearance was in December 1997 against Newcastle, who happened to mark the occasion with their only win at Welford Road since 1977 – and coach ended in sad acrimony in 2004 and though he has been back here since with Harlequins and now Newcastle, there have been functions for past players that have passed without him, suggesting there are grievances that still fester.
There were affectionate cries of “Deano, Deano” from Leicester supporters near to the Newcastle coaches’ seats but it is Manu whose pair of syllables is most popular now. Castigated by some for his bunny-ears joke behind David Cameron’s back at a Lions squad reception last Monday – surprisingly few commentators questoned why Cameron might command so little respect – the 22-year-old England centre was wreaking much more familiar destruction here, helping set up two first-half tries with his monstrously difficult to halt upper body strength and leg-drive. “Few people in the world can do what he does,” remarked Paul Burke, the Leicester backs coach.
Richards’s Leicester won the Heineken Cup in 2001 and 2002, successes which gave a fresh dimension to this great club. In more recent times the Tigers – whose executive director Peter Wheeler is on the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd – have decided the competition format and finances are not to their liking. Newcastle’s horizons are much narrower after their recent promotion. Alex Tait and Noah Cato showed the right stuff when Tigers’ kicking bombs rained on them but the Falcons hit trouble on the deck, losing a stream of possession to the Leicester snafflers.
And two Leicester tries in the first 12 minutes added gloss to the groundwork. Toby Flood – the Leicester captain and one of three England internationals alongside Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi making a first start of the league season – kicked penalties to touch for line-outs, signifying Tigers’ confidence. Thomas Waldrom was held up from one, but Youngs and Graham Kitchener on the short side put Jordan Crane in at the left corner. Kitchener was next to score, with Flood converting in front of the posts, after Tuilagi had barrelled past some ineffectual tackling. “It’s no good putting two or three men on him because that leaves gaps elsewhere,” said Richards. “And you expect people to make first-up tackles. But there are international teams who have found Manu difficult to handle.”
Newcastle kept the ball up to earn a mauling penalty kicked by Rory Clegg in the 27th minute, and the fly-half dropped a goal five minutes later to make the most of a run by Dom Barrow that was judderingly halted by Tigers’ debutant American full-back Blaine Scully. Earlier Scully had sliced a touch-kick horribly – you could almost make out those same Leicester supporters murmuring “where d’y ou say he’s from again?” – but that tackle on Barrow and a try on 34 minutes settled him in. The Falcons’ defence flew up to meet Tuilagi in midfield after Flood had kicked another penalty to touch for a line-out drive. One hefty hand-off of Tom Catterick later, Tuilagi was sending the ball to Scully on the right and Leicester were 17-6 ahead at half-time.
Job done, in effect, and frankly, with a few front-line players rested perhaps Newcastle had gone some way to conceding the match before kick-off, not unusual or unwise for non-title contenders in this long grind of a Premiership. As the newly promoted club Newcastle already have an away win over Sale to encourage them; in the third quarter here they drew a penalty out of a back-pedalling Leicester scrum and nicked a line-out throw from the champions. Two boxes ticked for Richards and his forwards assistant, another ex-Tiger in John Wells. Meanwhile Tuilagi tried a chip ahead that went out on the full – of the many things he is famous for, kicking is not one of them.
With three England internationals waiting on the bench – Dan Cole, the prop, was first on, to be joined by Geoff Parling – Leicester had no need to worry, although Flood, only just back from a concussion injury, was certainly angry at a late tackle on him by Newcastle’s ex-Tigers prop Kieran Brookes in the build-up to the bonus-point try scored by Flood's fellow playmaker Dan Bowden after 53 minutes.
Brookes went to the sin bin, Flood popped the conversion over. Waldrom’s try from a rolling maul was converted by Flood’s replacement Owen Williams with 10 minutes remaining and though Leicester lost the consistently impressive Adam Thompstone to a yellow card and Tuilagi to cramp after he kicked a ball clear, they had moved fairly smoothly to the top of the overnight table. Richards declared himself pleased that his youngsters had gained experience at a Premiership ground like no other – and he should know.
Leicester Tigers: B Scully; N Goneva, M Tuilagi (N Morris 78), D Bowden (Morris 64-66), A Thompstone; T Flood (capt, O Williams 61), B Youngs (D Melé 68); B Stankovich (T Bristow 56), N Briggs, L Mulipola (D Cole 47), E Slater, G Kitchener, T Waldrom, J Gibson, J Crane (G Parling 56).
Newcastle Falcons: A Tait; N Cato, A Powell, J Fitzpatrick (A Crockett 70), T Catterick; R Clegg (J Hodgson 62), W Fury (C Pligrim 62); F Montanella (G Strain 63), R Vickers (M Thompson 54), K Brookes (S Wilson 63), C del Fava (S Tomes 61), D Barrow, M Wilson, W Welch (capt, A Hogg 53), C York (S Wilson 54-63).
Referee: D Rose (Plymouth).