WELFORD ROAD, Leicester — It was meant to be George Ford’s glorious homecoming, a match where we witnessed the true potency of this new-look Leicester Tigers box-office backline. Instead it was Ford’s former club Bath who gatecrashed the party, and ended a 14-year wait for an Aviva Premiership win at Welford Road.
They have seen some memorable games here. But those with red and green running through their veins will wonder exactly how they didn’t win this match with Bath playing much of the last 10 minutes with 13 men. However, these West Country chaps are made of stern stuff, and they battled over the line.
Far too often Leicester got into attacking positions but a breakdown in communication followed, passes went to ground, hands flapped and the ball rolled forward, interrupting their momentum. They failed to put their main strike runners into space and Manu Tuilagi, who scored on his return, was rarely given a chance to cause havoc.
The closing stages typified Leicester’s shortcomings as they had an attacking lineout, against Bath down to 13 men, but fluffed their lines as their visitors turned it through Luke Charteris.
Bath played with heart — discipline was an issue with high tackles aplenty — and this is quite a statement to start off a campaign.
The odds were stacked against them given they hadn’t won at Welford Road in the Premiership since 2003 and had just one victory from 27 on the road against top six sides. Their away form was also dismal last term but director of rugby Todd Blackadder sought to address their troubles on the road by playing all of their preseason matches away from the Recreation Ground and spending Tuesdays at PRO14 sides. It’s worked, as mental strength and focus got them through those difficult last 10 minutes.
But Leicester were their own worst enemies, with errors underlying this defeat — twice in the closing stages the Tigers had the try line beckoning but knocked on — and this much-heralded new-look backline is still building an understanding.
Their best moments were when England teammates Ben Youngs and Ford surged forward; usually one made the break through their own volition and the other followed, but phase play didn’t move them on.
The good news for those following Ford’s progress at Leicester is that he looks right at home, and is carrying that same confidence we saw for England last term in the way he attacks the line and then finds corners when required. He will regret the loose pass which led to Semesa Rokoduguni’s breakaway score, but there was enough here for him to look like he had never been away. The rest of the team outside of the half-backs just have to get on his wavelength.
That understanding will come, but in a team with five new signings starting, the synergy just wasn’t there. The forwards largely failed to find any trundling momentum — bar Ellis Genge and Sione Kalamafoni who carried hard — and the backs were made to feed off scraps. Jonny May covered a huge amount of ground for Leicester and grabbed two tries but so often errors prevented go-forward.
There were seldom sweeping moves, and while Leicester will lament their own errors, Bath’s defence rose to the challenge with Jonathan Joseph immense.
Joseph and his centre colleague Max Clark nullified the threat posed by Toomua and Tuilagi, and an intelligent kicking game and exit strategy — both Chris Cook and Rhys Priestland directed play well — meant that defence was turned into attack, while rapid line speed saw Leicester put under pressure in their own 22.
Matt Banahan was also superb for Bath but their star man was Taulupe Faletau who again proved why he is regarded as a world-class back-rower. His positioning in the backfield and defensive line caused Leicester trouble, and his deceptively quick feet also took his side forward.
Bath’s off-season policy of retention over recruitment paid dividends. They knew what they were about, and played to the script. Priestland, so often in the shadows during the Ford era at Bath, played with confidence and intelligence and there was an understanding and calmness as they went about their business on a ground that holds so few happy memories from recent times.
Leicester will click, we are only in the early stages of the season and with Ford driving the team from fly-half they will retain an unwavering belief that they will be in the mix come the end of the season. But this was Bath’s day as their good old-fashioned rivalry with the Tigers played out another belter on this memorable day for those from the West Country.