Twelvetrees helps Tigers cut the Irish down to size
London Irish 14 Leicester Tigers 23: Champions' pack smashes a path for stand-in at stand-off to keep it simple in search of away win
The anecdotal buzz around the game is that the scrummage is a neutered weapon; a simple restart at best and more often just a mess. It may be true there are fewer put-ins these days but Leicester made a nonsense of the received wisdom here, making merry hell for London Irish almost every time the packs went down and earning an emblematic penalty try to settle the result, four minutes from the end.
Given that the Tigers made monkeys of their opposition at the line-out too, it was a red letter day for the champions at the set pieces. Irish had been one of the most effective scrummaging teams in the opening weeks of the season but they were a distant second-best in losing at Northampton in their previous match and they have now suffered five defeats on the trot in all competitions. Richard Cockerill, the Leicester head coach, summed it up: "In the fundamentals of the game we were better than them."
Both sides were mindful of re-introducing players who had been playing internationals throughout November; Leicester had done without 10 absentees and two, England's Tom Croft and Toby Flood, were unfit to return. Still, that is what a squad is for and Leicester's is stronger than most. They have had a tough run on the road but they have collected bonus points at Wasps, Saracens and Gloucester. This third win on the trot pushed them above Irish and into second place behind Northampton.
Pity Chris Hala'Ufia, the London Irish No 8 who was obliged to put in a tough shift, picking up at the base. The Tongan never relented but he must have envied the comparative serenity of Billy Twelvetrees, the temporary Leicester fly-half. More regularly a centre, Twelvetrees did little more than the basics but he did them well, kicking three penalties in the first 20 minutes to place a firm boot on Irish's throat.
Opposite Twelvetrees, the skittish Ryan Lamb pushed the boundaries with his long touch-finders and risky passes. One lusty fling almost hit a post, which would have put Topsy Ojo in a terrible spot. Lamb, whose 39th-minute penalty cut Leicester's lead to six points at half-time, was not alone in his questionable decision-making. The hooker Brian Blaney had been on the field a few seconds – David Paice suffered a suspected broken ankle – when Irish chose a complicated line-out move, Kieran Roche darting to the front. Leicester had prepared to do damage in this area and Craig Newby picked off the throw like an apple from a tree.
"This game's about momentum and if you can't keep possession for periods of time you can't sustain pressure," said Toby Booth, Irish's head coach. "We're disappointed for ourselves and our fans, because parts of that were pretty ordinary." They had five penalties in the Leicester 22 without much reward and the breakdown did not go as they had hoped, either.
Hala'Ufia's crash-ball run in support of a break by Jonathan Joseph helped create a try for Ojo five minutes into the second half, during a lean spell for Leicester; a nicely judged sand wedge of a chip by Lamb bounced perfectly for the wing to score at the right corner. But Leicester responded within nine minutes, building on a driving maul and pick and goes in the Irish 22. At first, a four-on-two overlap on the left went unused, but the numerical advantage remained and after the play went one way and back the other Geordan Murphy foxed Ojo with a dummied pass before sending the flanker Thomas Waldrom over for the try.
Twelvetrees converted and though Irish fought hard, with a starry trio of replacements in Steffon Armitage, Seilala Mapusua and Sailosi Tagicakibau scattering Tigers in a couple of exciting movements, they could earn no more than two penalties by Lamb after 63 and 71 minutes and Leicester led 16-14.
The almost inevitable came to pass as Leicester packed down in the Irish 22, after a knock-on. A penalty for collapsing might been kicked but the Tigers knew what they wanted. They scrummaged again, clattering towards the line for what would have been pushover try if Mr Pearson had not jogged to the posts, arm raised. Twelvetrees' conversion came with a cry of "timber" as Irish's unbeaten home record in the league fell.
London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo (S Tagicakibau, 66), E Seveali'i, D Bowden (S Mapusua, 55), J Joseph; R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt; A Corbisiero, 66), D Paice (B Blaney, 17), F Rautenbach (P Ion, 55), N Kennedy, K Roche (M Garvey, 55), G Stowers (S Armitage, 61), C Hala'Ufia, R Thorpe.
Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt; M Tuilagi, 77); S Hamilton, M Smith, A Allen, A Tuilagi; B Twelvetrees, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 61), L Deacon (E Slater, 78), G Skivington, T Waldrom (S Mafi, 74), J Crane, C Newby.
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
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