Youngs back as Leicester grind down Ulster
Leicester 20 Ulster 9
Sunday 20 November 2011
This has not been a European weekend to lift the gloom hanging over English rugby, so Leicester's win carried added value. The Tigers' travails in the Aviva Premiership have been well-chronicled, so to be top of Pool Four in the Heineken Cup is something to cherish.
Added to that was an unambiguous declaration from Richard Cockerill, that he has no interest in becoming part of an England coaching panel. In his view, Jim Mallinder (Northampton) and Toby Booth (London Irish) are the leading candidates to replace Martin Johnson. "I've been talking about loyalty to my players and that applies to the coach," Cockerill said.
He is all too aware of the hole from which Leicester have to climb and last night they had to chisel out success against a combative Ulster. The game reflected Leicester's season as a whole – there was a lack of precision and an absence of vision.
The sense of relief when Matt Smith chased through a rolling kick from Toby Flood to score the only try was almost palpable. The scoring sequence prior to that had been knock for knock – Ian Humphreys, returning to a club where he spent two seasons, kicking his penalties, only to see colleagues offend and give Flood the same opportunities.
The greatest surprise came when Humphreys, who had been kicking beautifully, missed the easiest chance of the lot, which would have sent Ulster into the final quarter on level terms. But where the Irish province fell down was in the absence of a bench to match Leicester's. With four of their better players injured or absent, they had to depend largelyon their starting XV. Leicester could send for Martin Castrogiovanni and, in his first appearance since England's World Cup defeat by France six weeks ago, Ben Youngs.
Leicester and England have been at odds over the rehabilitation of Youngs's knee (an England contingent visited a fortnight ago to discuss the situation, prior to Johnson's departure as team manager), but the scrum-half returned for the final quarter, full of his usual panache and behind a pack gradually gaining the upper hand.
"We've been looking after Benny, his knee's in good nick. To get him back and playing is good for him, good news for us and for England looking towards the Six Nations," Cockerill said. Less good was the fact that the young centre Andy Forsyth, may have broken his ankle, though Cockerill hopes to see Billy Twelvetrees back in action next weekend and Manu Tuilagi, the England centre, available for the away Heineken Cup game with Clermont Auvergne on 11 December.
Leicester never surrendered their considerable advantage at the scrum; the line-out was evenly contested and within that came a contest between two 2009 Lions, Tom Croft and Stephen Ferris. Where the one was so was the other.
Leicester were delighted to deny Ulster even a losing bonus point which, in a tight pool, could be crucial. Their traditional strength, defence, has been a weakness this season and it did not help that the midfield had to be reshuffled after Forsyth's departure. But Ulster relied on the direct approach, interspersed with the high balls lofted by their half-backs in the hope of forcing an error from Geordan Murphy and his wings.
It seldom happened and, in the absence of the injured Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Wallace, the Irish could offer few alternatives. There were inaccuracies from Leicester – the forced pass, the poor communication – and the fact that neither side spent more than a minute or so in the opposing 22 told its own story.
Once the raids of Ferris had been held, Thomas Waldrom became the dominant figure in loose play and he was prominent in the move which settled the game. For once Leicester sustained phase play in the Ulster 22 before Flood sent a kick through which Smith was first to reach. That Flood added his fifth penalty on the stroke of time was mere gloss.
Leicester G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Smith, A Forsyth (N Morris, 16), A Tuilagi; T Flood, S Harrison (B Youngs, 57); M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 75), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 57), L Deacon, G Parling (G Skivington, 52), T Croft (S Mafi, 74), T Waldrom, J Salvi.
Ulster S Danielli (A D'Arcy, 68); A Trimble, D Cave, N Spence, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Jackson, 73), P Marshall; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick (A Macklin, 68), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, P Wannenburg, C Henry.
Referee R Poite (France).
Pens: Flood 5
Pens: Humphreys 3
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