The confirmation that their captain and England fly-half Toby Flood will be leaving for a French club next summer was by no means Leicester’s worst news yesterday. The League champions have been busy scouting out replacements for Flood for a while, with Rhys Priestland and Freddie Burns possible candidates. No, the loss here – a record margin of defeat in the Premiership for Leicester – was more immediately hurtful. Six tries to one was a hammering, even if it might be an irrelevance come the end of season shakedown.
Flood, 28, who has 60 caps, is thought to be heading for Toulouse or Toulon, and therefore turning his back on England selection in the year before a home World Cup; no easy decision, but Saracens’ Owen Farrell appears the national coach Stuart Lancaster’s first choice, with Burns and Bath’s George Ford among the back-up. “We put our best offer forward,” said Richard Cockerill, the Leicester director of rugby. “I don’t think it’s a monetary thing, Floody wants to do something different and sees his England chances limited.”
Flood sat out this match – uncomfortably all round, as he had a strained muscle in the backside – while Farrell failed to finish it. The feisty Saracen flew out of defence to make a tackle on Ryan Lamb as the second of two Leicester mauls in quick succession was being held at bay midway through the second half, and his head collided with the supporting Niki Goneva’s hip.
Cockerkill chose against fielding the same team who had fought out the past fortnight’s back to back European wins over Montpellier – exertions greater than Saracens’ in overcoming the Italians of Zebre. The Tigers omitted their England front rowers Dan Cole and Tom Youngs – the latter on the bench; the former all together, in compliance with the elite player agreement that obliges a rest once in the next three matches if Lancaster wants it. Leicester then lost Matt Smith and Terence Hepetema within nine minutes of each other early in the second half to add two more centres to the absent Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Allen and Dan Bowden; this coincided, moreover, with what Cockerill described as the “key” incident of Graham Kitchener’s yellow card in the 39th minute.
Sarries were 13-10 up at the time – a try by Jack Wilson plus Farrell’s conversion and two penalties set against Kitchener’s chargedown try to punish a dawdling Farrell, and Lamb’s penalty and conversion. Kitchener tackled Farrell after the ball had been passed and although there was an element of the “tip” about it, there seemed no danger of injury as the fly-half landed on his back. Indeed, Farrell jumped up immediately to have a moan about it. In Kitchener’s absence, Saracens scored 15 unanswered points: a try by Chris Ashton with its own controversial note; another try on 45 minutes by Billy Vunipola and a conversion and penalty by Farrell. The Ashton score – Saracens’ England wing would run in a second with four minutes to go – came from an apparent forward pass by Chris Wyles that was subjected to umpteen reviews by the television match official before the referee Wayne Barnes okayed it.
“Saracens played very well, we couldn’t cope with their power,” said Cockerill. “But if that [Kitchener’s] was a yellow card the lawmakers are kidding themselves, the game’s soft. Also, we were driving a maul in the second half, Ben Youngs pulls a bloke [Steve Borthwick] who’s 6ft 8in out, throws him on the floor and it’s a penalty. Is that where we’re getting to with the game? The lawmakers are having a laugh, it’s a joke.” Sarries’ Mark McCall thought Kitchener’s yellow card, as a minimum, was justified, arguing the Leicester lock had not brought Farrell to ground safely.
Saracens’s celebrations of a penalty try at a scrum for 42-10 in the 73rd minute riled Leicester; but either side of that Neil de Kock’s vivacious substitute cameo for the home team was a stand-out effort; the scrum-half ran brilliantly from a scrum for Jackson Wray to finish and then gave the final pass for Ashton’s concluding try. It all outstripped Leicester’s 45-17 loss to Wasps in 1998, as well as ending a run of six wins in all competitions for the Tigers, while Saracens stretched their similar streak to eight.
Saracens: A Goode (B Ransom, 70); C Ashton, T Streather, C Wyles, J Wilson; O Farrell (C Hodgson, 68), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 54); R Barrington (M Vunipola, 41), J George, M Stevens (J Johnston, 54), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (G Kruis, 57), B Vunipola, K Brown, E Joubert (J Wray, 67).
Leicester Tigers: M Tait; N Morris, N Goneva, M Smith (T Hepetema, 41, A Thompstone, 50), M Benjamin; R Lamb, B Youngs (D Mele, 66); B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 46), N Briggs (T Youngs 46), F Balmain (J Schuster 46), E Slater, G Kitchener (S de Chaves, 73), J Gibson, P Matera (T Waldrom, 54), J Crane (capt).
Referee: W Barnes (London).