Leicester underline title credentials with victory over defending champions Harlequins

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  • Steve Borthwick
    English rugby union footballer and coach
  • George Ford
    English rugby union footballer
Leicester underline title credentials with victory over defending champions Harlequins - PA
Leicester underline title credentials with victory over defending champions Harlequins - PA

Who can stop Leicester Tigers? It was a question hung in the dank air at Welford Road last night as Harlequins, the defending Premiership champions, became the latest victims of Steve Borthwick’s side.

A ninth successive victory in what was the last Premiership game before Christmas moves Leicester nine points clear of second-placed Saracens, and 12 points ahead of Quins, who moved up to fourth place. There may be many twists and turns to come in this Premiership campaign, but what is certain is that Borthwick has brought the good times back to Leicester.

After an autumn Test series that majored on the rebranding of a new-look England side, Borthwick’s revolution has instead been founded on rediscovering the essence of the Tiger’s former glory days. And as the rain fell and the wind swirled in the dark December afternoon, in front of the first capacity crowd at Welford Road since April 2018, his side played with a ferocious intensity that was a trademark of the Martin Johnson era.

By the end of last season, they had achieved his first target of becoming a side that was hard to beat. On this evidence, they have become a side that now knows how to win.

Marcus Smith may have been the darling of new-look England’s successful autumn campaign, displacing Ford from the squad, but his mercurial play made little impact against the formidable Tigers defence and a flash of indiscipline saw him collect a yellow card just before half-time for diving into a ruck to knock the ball out of the hands of Ben Youngs.

Instead it was England’s former half-back pairing of Youngs and George Ford who ran the show. Ford finished the game with the man-of-the-match award, landing three penalties and converting a try by Harry Potter, and edging the territorial battle in the final quarter with his immaculate kicking game.

George Ford (R) got the better of his rival for the England No.10 shirt Marcus Smith (L) - GETTY IMAGES
George Ford (R) got the better of his rival for the England No.10 shirt Marcus Smith (L) - GETTY IMAGES

If the timing of his decision to join Sale Sharks next season may seem baffling with Leicester on the rise again, it does not appear to have had any detrimental impact on his game.

But Youngs was also a worthy contender, benefiting from a new conditioning programme this season that has left him looking as sharp as he has ever been. He was a constant threat from the fringes, at one point knocking Smith over with a fend as he soared into the Quins 22.

Appropriately Ford and Youngs combined for the decisive moment of the match, when, with Leicester leading 9-6 after a tight first-half, they instinctively paired up to expose Louis Lynagh, who had become isolated at the edge of the defensive line. Ford drew the young Harlequins wing into the tackle before putting Youngs’ clear up the left-hand touchline. The England scrum-half surged clear before displaying a sumptuous piece of skill by kicking the ball with the outside of his boot into midfield for Potter to collect and score under the posts.

Quins these days are a defiant side however and despite the momentum and conditions seemingly against them, they did not crumple and Lynagh would make amends with a thrilling try of his own, winning the race to his own chip ahead after quick hands by Smith had carved open half-a-chance.

Moments earlier Smith had landed his third penalty but he failed with his conversion attempt that ultimately cost Quins the chance to draw the match.

It was the champions’ profligacy that was their undoing however. Their golden opportunity came just before half-time, when Huw Jones overlooked a two-man overlap and instead tucked the ball and drove for the line, only to be held up by a brilliant tackle by Potter.

Alex Dombrandt had earlier been denied a try when accidentally colliding with referee Ian Tempest that prevented a tackle by Ellis Genge and deep into the second half the No 8 narrowly failed to hold a crosskick by Smith when a try looked on. But Leicester, who had lost Jasper Wiese to a yellow card at the end of the first half, had the wherewithal to grind out a victory of real substance.

“There has been a period here where games that Leicester Tigers were involved in were not perceived from the outside to be big games - or they were big games for the wrong reasons,” Borthwick said. “That is not where we want to be. The players have worked incredibly hard to lift this team from where it was and you have seen the crowds gradually increasing. Hopefully they are proud of what the team is doing right now.”

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