Castres, the reigning French champions, are busily chasing Vereniki Goneva with a view to luring the Fijian wing back across the English Channel. No one seems entirely sure of the state of play – Goneva may or may not have signed a pre-contract, or a memo of understanding, or a declaration of intent – but as things stand, there is no guarantee that the Top 14 club will ultimately fare any better in their pursuit than Exeter’s backs, who trailed the man from one end of Welford Road to the other on Sunday in an exercise of purest futility.
Leicester are driven by some serious forces when, international call-ups and injury lists willing, they find a means of fielding a representative side, so it is quite an achievement for one man to look more powerful than everyone else put together, by a factor of 10.
By overshadowing Manu Tuilagi, Tom Youngs, Logovi’i Mulipola, Ed Slater and Jordan Crane in the way he did over the course of an utterly one-sided Premiership match against upbeat opponents who had not travelled without hope, Goneva produced one of the performances of the campaign to date.
He had a big hand in Tuilagi’s opening try on eight minutes before making much of the running for Mulipola’s stampede to the line – a rhino-like charge that pretty much did for the England wing Jack Nowell, who found himself in the unenviable position of attempting a head-on tackle and was duly vaporised by the Samoan prop.
Goneva then bagged a score of his own, turning Luke Arscott and Henry Slade to stone with the kind of footwork last seen at Sadler’s Wells. Not that anyone makes ballet tights in his size.
It was not until the very fag end of the contest, with the Tigers out of sight on the scoreboard and officially back in the hunt for a successful defence of their Premiership title, that the man from Nadi met more resistance than he could handle.
That resistance came from an unexpected quarter: the Exeter outside-half Henry Slade, who showed bravery beyond the call of duty with a try-saving tackle a few metres short of the line. If the youngster was shaken to the very core of his being and he ended the game with a messed-up face, nobody was rushing to question his commitment to the cause.
Afterwards, the Leicester rugby director, Richard Cockerill, was pressed on Goneva’s future. “As far as next season is concerned, he’s not under contract to anybody,” said the former England hooker, who signed the South Seas islander from the French second-tier club Tarbes in 2012.
“I think we’re a long way down the line towards sorting it out, but when it comes to recruitment you never say it’s definite until it’s done. Will he be still be with us come September? I’m as confident as I can be. Why? Because while we can’t match the money on offer in France, we can certainly offer good coaching and a top environment. Anyway, all that glitters is not gold. We’re the ones who gave him this opportunity and there has to be some value in playing where you’re happy. And he looked happy enough out there, didn’t he?”
Assuming Fiji do not mess up their qualification by losing to the Cook Islands – or, more likely, find themselves ostracised from the wider rugby community because of the excesses of their military-led government, which is not above meddling in the country’s sporting life – England will find themselves squaring up to Goneva at their home World Cup in 18 months’ time. On Sunday’s evidence, he may not be the only Leicester player involved in the tournament opener at Twickenham.
Ben Youngs, driven out of the red-rose scrum-half berth by Danny Care and currently playing third fiddle behind Lee Dickson, showed clear signs of rediscovering some vintage form after a barren run, while his industrious brother Tom carried the ball with his usual vigour. As for Slater in the engine room… well, he was quite something. Leicester’s new captain is not yet in a position to break up the Joe Launchbury-Courtney Lawes locking partnership at the heart of the national team – truth be told, he is still some way behind the first reserve, Dave Attwood of Bath – but if he improves as dramatically over the next 12 months as he has in the last year, he will make a very strong case for squad selection.
It was Slater, one of life’s more obvious hard nuts, who set the tone in the early stages and Exeter, much less vibrant than they had been in winning the Anglo-Welsh Cup a week previously, had no answer to the physicality generated by the Leicester pack. Despite a mauling try from the hooker Jack Yeandle just shy of the half-hour, the West Countrymen reached the interval 15 points adrift and all but beaten.
Three further tries, the first from the route-one wing Adam Thompstone and the others from the super-smart French half-back David Mélé, rendered Ian Whitten’s late score irrelevant and served notice to the rest of the league that the Tigers are on the prowl. They may even have Tom Croft, their Lions flanker, fit for the run-in. Cockerill had written his most athletic back-rower out of selection for the remainder of the campaign, but the player himself thinks he might be back from long-term injury inside a month. If he is proved correct, the holders will take an awful lot of stopping.
Leicester: Tries Mélé 2, Tuilagi, Mulipola, Goneva, Thompstone; Conversions Williams 2, Flood; Penalties Williams 3. Exeter: Tries Yeandle, Whitten; Conversion Slade; Penalty Slade.
Leicester S Hamilton (M Smith, 68); V Goneva, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Thompstone; O Williams (T Flood, 58), B Youngs (D Mélé, 65); M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 67), T Youngs (R Hawkins, 62), L Mulipola (F Balmain, 58), L Deacon (G Kitchener, 52), E Slater (capt), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom, 62).
Exeter L Arscott; J Nowell (M Jess, h-t), I Whitten, P Dollman, F Vainikolo (G Steenson, 45); H Slade, D Lewis (H Thomas, 76); B Moon (C Rimmer, 53), J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie, 53) , H Tui (A Brown, 53), D Mumm (capt), D Welch (D Armand, 51), D Ewers, B White (T Johnson, 51), K Horstmann.
Referee D Richards (Berkshire).