• Leicester 11-34 Racing 92
Leicester’s season is not yet at the halfway point but some deeply uncomfortable statistics are already stacking up. This was the Tigers’ eighth straight defeat in all competitions, the club’s worst run since 1975, and their final two pool games in Europe are now all but academic following this latest four-try reverse in front of their own supporters.
Local expectations have sunk so low that the club’s former player Austin Healey, summarising on BT Sport, was moved afterwards to describe their next Premiership game against Harlequins as “possibly the biggest game in their history”. Lose to Quins at Welford Road on Saturday and it is conceivable the Tigers could be at the foot of the domestic league table, which really would start the Christmas alarm bells clanging.
They have endured many worse days than this but, equally, some familiar failings were again frustratingly apparent. For all the incisiveness of Finn Russell at fly-half for Racing, the ease with which the Tigers’ defence was repeatedly split open in the first quarter was telling and the four costly lost lineouts, along with the sin-binning of Dan Cole, did little to help either.
Everyone at Leicester is keen to support the popular Geordan Murphy, who has been in the hot seat since Matt O’Connor was abruptly jettisoned in September, but the positive gameplan the former Ireland full-back is seeking to promote is in danger of being overtaken by events. This was Leicester’s fourth defeat in their past six European home games, having previously lost one in 34. “We are on an horrific run, confidence is low and Quins will come here and really sense blood in the water,” acknowledged Murphy. “From my experience it is the lowest ebb in the time I have been here – so, 20-odd years. It is really tough.”
Murphy has reiterated that Tigers expect to appoint an extra coach in the next few weeks but is more immediately preoccupied with the “simple errors” being made by senior players as well as his squad’s physical state. “We are stretched player-wise and are right to the limit with injuries. The players are broken but I don’t see anyone not trying.” His captain, George Ford, was similarly blunt: “Everyone is speaking about the defence but we have got other issues as well. There are a few things that need fixing, and quite urgently. Whether we have stood still as a club, I am not too sure. But if you look at the top teams in Europe, and the top teams in England, they have taken their games to the next level. We need to have a serious look at what we can do to catch them up.”
At first glance it would seem perverse to compare the wintry east Midlands with last Sunday’s fixture inside Racing’s futuristic indoor palace in Paris but this was actually a very similar contest. The visitors had their first converted try on the board inside eight minutes and then scored again in the left corner through Juan Imhoff straight off first-phase lineout ball, their speed and execution simply too slick for the home side.
Apart from one earth-shaking tackle by Manu Tuilagi on Ben Tameifuna Leicester were making little impact and worse soon followed. Russell duly spotted another sizeable midfield hole around his own 22, surged clear and then fed the supporting Bernard Le Roux who was dragged down just short by a desperate Ford. It was a temporary reprieve with a pop pass to Virimi Vakatawa resulting in a third converted try and a 24-6 lead inside the first 22 minutes.
A nice arcing run by Tuilagi finally offered some local respite, with George Worth’s score in the right corner earning the approval of the television match official. With the exception of a 48th-minute Russell penalty, however, there was no more scoring until the final minute when Racing, having sat back and soaked up the limited amount of pressure generated by the Tigers, broke clear through Maxime Machenaud and Imhoff dived over for his second to ensure a bonus point.