Champions Cup: Five takeaways from Leicester v Edinburgh as Jack van Poortvliet and Handre Pollard steer Tigers to last eight

·6-min read
Leicester Tigers' Jack van Poortvliet Credit: Alamy
Leicester Tigers' Jack van Poortvliet Credit: Alamy

Following a 16-6 triumph for Leicester Tigers over Edinburgh in the Champions Cup, here’s our five takeaways from the round-of-16 action.

The top line

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In an era where running rugby seems to be everything to the marketeers, this was a game that was far more pie and mash than canapes and champagne, as Leicester Tigers booked their place in the quarter-finals, beating Edinburgh in a dramatic match at Welford Road played in torrential rain and with incredible commitment at the breakdown.

A Jasper Wiese try and three Handre Pollard penalties were enough to see the hosts over the line but for a large part of the game, Edinburgh were brilliantly physical and disruptive and pushed Leicester all the way.

In some ways it was wonderful to see a return to the basic values of rugby, where space is a premium and when collisions and breakdowns held the key to every facet of the match. It’s worth noting that Guy Porter didn’t receive a phase pass until the 29th minute such was the level of error and forward attrition!

It needed something special to separate the teams and in the 51st minute, chaos from a Cameron Henderson charge-down saw the ball land near the powerful figure of Wiese and like a locomotive shunter, he trundled down the touchline, smashing everyone out of his way to finish in the corner for a brilliant individualist try.

Wiese’s 40 minutes was so impactful that it saw him gain the Star of the Match in a formidable display of pragmatic carry and powerful defence, and in every way, the robust Springbok was the difference between the two sides.

Game control

On a night like Friday, half-back control was key in every aspect and, Wiese aside, there was a distinct advantage in the direction offered from the outstanding Jack van Poortvliet and Pollard in the Leicester midfield.

They controlled the contestables and kicked wonderful distance to put immense pressure down the Edinburgh flanks in the air. With George Martin and Hanro Liebenberg brilliant in controlling the drop zone and with Julian Montoya and Tommy Reffell clamping over any isolated carry or loose ball, the marginals went Tigers’ way.

Since his return from England duty, Van Poortvliet has gone up another gear for Tigers at domestic level, and with a world champion outside him, Tigers have the half-back pairing to boss any fixture providing they get the ball.

A word for Pollard – not only was his kicking from hand pinpoint – one touch finder of 40 metres flat sticks in the mind, but as his troublesome hamstring gets more reliable so the variety of break and pass is coming back into his game. It was an assured performance from both Tigers half-backs and one to build on as both the Premiership and the Champions Cup reach their climax.

Kick difference

Tigers’ kick strategy was far more predictable yet far more effective than Edinburgh’s. The hosts chose the route of the contestables, kicking to air with 28 out of 41 kicks from hand, but given the power of Blair Kinghorn and Emiliano Boffelli with the boot it seems strange that they focused on corners and territory with 21 of their 31 kicks in contrast.

Tigers managed to reclaim 19 of their 28 efforts, 13 of those within the Edinburgh half, and the momentum they created when contesting or driving caused no end of issues at the breakdown for the visitors. Tigers also realised that the Edinburgh back three really only had one dominant catcher, Boffelli, and provided they kicked short enough to prevent Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham space to run the return lines, then the rewards for controlled kicking strategy were there for the taking.

With Freddie Steward also adding heft of foot and Jimmy Gopperth executing a couple of teasing grubbers, this was a match won with footballing intelligence over handling deftness.

Edinburgh pride

Despite being outthought and outperformed in the kicking duel there was a lot to like about the way Edinburgh brought their A Game onto the road.

Jamie Ritchie was like a springer spaniel with a tennis ball all evening – cleaning up scraps, pressuring lineouts, disrupting rucks and being a general pain in Tigers’ backside. He really is an absolutely exceptional talent, a modern day John Jeffrey, and both he and Hamish Watson had some wonderfully skilful moments delivering the arts of the back-row.

The big lads up front also did a fine job, with WP Nel giving James Cronin a hard time in the tight for some 50 minutes, possibly without the reward from the officials that he deserved. The lineouts were a lottery for both teams, with eight turnovers (four apiece) recorded during an evening that demanded unreasonable precision for both hookers and jumpers, but a lot of that pressure came from Ritchie at the front, his light frame getting really high on Montoya’s throws.

Steve Diamond has certainly got a lot to work with in this team – there’s some incredible talent from 1 to 15, but considering that level of talent on paper he probably will consider his side should have done more tonight.

The bottom line

From an international perspective, the watching representatives of both the English and Welsh coaching teams will be writing glowing reports over a few of their players. Reffell was absolutely magnificent, grabbing four turnovers and hitting 23 thundering tackles; Martin might be best on the blindside at Test level but his love of folding oppositions carriers and of carrying hard into contact will have impressed the onlooking Richard Cockerill, who will also have enjoyed strong performances from both Dan’s – Cole and Kelly – who impressed as starter and replacement respectively.

But looking forward, the big picture is the next round. Leicester Tigers won’t know until Saturday afternoon who they face in the quarter-finals. Due to the vagaries of the EPCR seeding system, it’s either a trip to Dublin to take on the mighty Leinster or, rather strangely, the hosting of Ulster at Welford Road. Obviously the latter is preferable, but based upon tonight’s excellent showing, they will feel confident whoever they face.

READ MORE: Champions Cup: Jasper Wiese try helps Leicester Tigers beat Edinburgh and progress to last eight

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