Premiership Rugby

Leicester Suffers Early Setback In Retaining Premiership Title

Leicester Suffers Early Setback In Retaining Premiership Title

The Leicester Tigers endured a frustrating return to Premiership rugby, receiving an early setback in their pursuit of a second straight title.

Sep 12, 2022 by RugbyPass
Leicester Suffers Early Setback In Retaining Premiership Title

The Leicester Tigers endured a frustrating return to Premiership rugby, receiving an early setback in their pursuit of a second straight title with a late 24-20 loss to the Exeter Chiefs.

The Tigers are just months removed from lifting the league title (their first since 2013), which they achieved by beating Saracens 15-12, courtesy of a last-minute drop goal by replacement fly-half Freddie Burns.

This time around though, the Midlands side was on the receiving end of a final flourish, as Exeter prop Patrick Schickerling crossed the white wash to break Leicester hearts and release utter delirium for the home crowd at Sandy Park.

The comeback gave Rob Baxter's men much to cheer for and injected some valuable momentum into the start of their 2022-2023 campaign, which they will hope can bring more success than last season - a campaign in which the team missed out on the playoffs.

Exeter started the better of the two teams, taking an early three-point lead through the boot of Joe Simmonds. The home side then extended its score when the newly inculcated fly-half Harvey Skinner charged down a kick made by Tigers newcomer Jimmy Gopperth.

After recovering the ball, Skinner dictated a few phases of possession, before unleashing a kick toward the Leicester backfield. 

As the ball bobbled toward the try line, it appeared as though Burns was on hand to collect the ball and prevent Skinner from dotting down. However, the retreating half-back made matters worse when he made a dive for the ball, knocking it out of play.

Burns received a yellow card for deliberately patting the ball out, and Exeter was given a penalty try. No further inroads were made while Burns spent his 10 minutes on the touchline, and when he returned to the pitch, Leicester looked the most likely to score. Ben Youngs squandered a quick tap, while Gopperth missed a drop goal.

Burns eventually converted a second penalty of the day to bring the visitors within touching distance, but less than two minutes before the break, Exeter hit back. Inside centre Solomone Kata, who arrived from Moana Pasifika this summer, drifted through a gap in the Tigers defense to score a try on debut.

Following a successful conversion, Exeter entered halftime with a 17-6 advantage. 

Within 10 minutes of the second half, that gap shortened when Simmonds' attempt to kick a ball clear was stifled by an onrushing Dan Cole. The prop blocked the clearance, after Simmonds had spent precious seconds delaying the kick, recovered the ball and offloaded to Hanro Liebenberg, who finished off the try.

Leicester went on to enjoy a period of sustained dominance and came away with more points off the back of a well-worked driving maul. Set play was a forte of the title winners last season and was on full show, with the pack rumbling imperviously toward the line.

Exeter could do little to prevent the inevitable, as Charlie Clare finished off a well-worked move. 

The pendulum then swung back, and the Chiefs were held up over the line twice. 

With energy slowly sapping away, and the clock in the red, it appeared as though Exeter was set to come up short. That was until Schickerling stormed over the line from close range to claim a late win and cap off a brilliant comeback.

The last-minute try dished up an opening loss for the reigning champions and gave Exeter head coach Ali Hepher much to smile about

"There was nothing lucky with the win, as I thought we were in control for most of that match," he said. "In that final quarter, we had three holdups over the line and a disallowed try. When the yellow card came for Alec Hepburn, I thought we were up against it. However, we kept going at them and got our reward, but it was a game we would have lost last year."

Last season's struggles certainly included some bad luck, but it's also possible the team needed to work a bit harder. 

"Last season we didn't have a lot of luck, possibly because we didn't work hard enough, but we've had a reset and the bonding process kicked in during that final quarter," Hepher said. "We made a couple of errors, and they punished us as Leicester always do, for they are a resilient side, and were well on their way to winning that."

Leicester's head coach Steve Borthwick was invariably disappointed by the result, but he was not wholly negative and decided to heap praise of the spirit and determination his side exhibited.

He said: "The boys are gutted to lose in the last play, but we gave them one too many opportunities."

There definitely were some positives.

"There were a lot of positives to take from the game as everyone worked exceptionally hard for the club," Borthwick said. "Exeter came out with a specific plan and executed it very well. We adapted by making a few tweaks to be leading on the scoreboard, but we missed a few crucial opportunities. Going down to 14 with a yellow card and losing our fly-half Freddie Burns at halftime to a failed assessment, didn't help."

Leicester captain and try scorer Liebenberg admitted his side was off the pace in the first period but was pleased with the way they adapted and fronted up to a powerful Exeter pack.

"We started slowly but really bounced back, although it's hard chasing the game against a very physical pack like Exeter," he said. "In the first half, we lost the kicking battle, and then we had to make a lot of tackles, but the boys' defense was outstanding."

Written by Stefan Frost