Leicester bounce back as Ben Youngs and Toby Flood see off Ospreys

As timely European victories go, this was one of Leicester‘s more satisfying. A week ago, as they limped home defeated from Toulouse, there was genuine reason to wonder if their Heineken Cupseason was about to crash and burn prematurely. By the final whistle on Sunday, with a try-bonus point safely bagged, the Tigers looked anything but the spent force some had been calling them.

It was a reassuring day, too, for the England management as they finalise their plans for the autumn internationals. Dan Cole’s place as his country’s leading tighthead is not in question but Ben Youngs and Toby Flood both delivered sharply-improved displays at the perfect moment. If Flood’s haul of 25 points, including a monster 57-metre penalty and a vital interception try, was the most eye-catching, the swift resurrection of Youngs following a grim experience in Toulouse was equally significant.

This was only the scrum-half’s third game since returning from injury and the snap and crackle is back. He looked consistently sharp at the base of the scrum, escaped for one scorching 50-metre break and was on hand to seize Steve Mafi’s pass late on to complete a try which paved the way for Manu Tuilagi to score his second, and the all-important fourth, with 46 seconds remaining. Given Youngs’s travails in France, every metre gained must have felt like a glorious step out of darkness into light.

Among other things this result also sets up Pool Two nicely, Toulouse having failed to pick up a bonus point in Treviso. By the time the French champions reach the East Midlands in January the Tigers could, on this evidence, be purring again, having already extended their unbeaten home record to 20 Heineken Cup games. “I’m glad we’ve stuck it up some people who were happy to criticise us,” was the blunt reaction of Richard Cockerill, Leicester’s director of rugby. “We’ve had a lot poked at us this week and we’ve questioned what we do but that last 10 minutes showed the spirit the boys have got.”

It was all the more praiseworthy given the Ospreys led 10-0 after 13 minutes, not usually the ideal foundation for a stirring home triumph. The visitors, vaguely reminiscent of Don Revie’s Leeds in a predominantly white strip with yellowy-green socks, started splendidly, handling with confidence and scoring a perfectly-executed second-minute try finished by Ryan Jones.

A conversion and subsequent penalty from the accurate Dan Biggar extended the lead before the entire tenor of the match changed. Leicester finally started to escape the clutches of the eager Justin Tipuric on the floor and Cole began to give poor Ryan Bevington a serious roasting in the scrums. The Ospreys loosehead was sin-binned eventually for repeatedly hitting the deck and the Tigers duly seized the chance to turn the screw still further. “I don’t think there’s a player in England more important than him at the moment,” stressed Cockerill, confirming the 25-year-old is now the undisputed first choice ahead of Martin Castrogiovanni.

The Ospreys, in the end, were kept afloat by the efforts of Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones and Ryan Jones, alongside the competitiveness of their scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i. Had they achieved anything like set-piece parity it might have been a closer finish but from 19-19 with 18 minutes left everything went pear-shaped. The Welford Road pitch is not the biggest, as the 2015 World Cup organisers have just reminded everyone, but Flood has hit few sweeter than his 67th-minute effort which cleared the bar by several metres.

He later modestly suggested the ball was one of a good batch, while there was also a breeze at his back which came in useful again when, four minutes later, he picked off an attempted pass by Biggar and sprinted 55 metres to score, celebrating with a flying dive borrowed from his England team-mates Chris Ashton and Danny Care. Here, too, was evidence of a fitter, happier player enjoying his rugby once more. “If I could pin my ears back I would,” he joked, when asked to explain his impressive turn of speed.

The home crowd loved it, although there remained several rows of empty seats in the Caterpillar Stand. Either sofas in Leicestershire are comfier then they used to be or blanket TV coverage on Heineken Cup weekends is eroding the allure of actually attending the big game. If it is an issue at the best-supported club in England it is a collective problem but Peter Wheeler, Leicester’s chairman, has made clear the leading clubs are still wedded to a breakaway from the existing European competition in 2014 and their £152m deal with BT Vision. “I’ve never known the chairmen and owners of the English clubs more solidly behind a course of action that everybody believes is necessary to make the European competitions merit-based and equitable to all the participating teams,” stressed Wheeler.

Leicester Hamilton; Morris, Tuilagi, Allen, Goneva (Smith, 65); Flood, B Youngs; Mulipola (Ayerza, 50), T Youngs, Cole (Castrogiovanni, 54), Kitchener (Deacon, 54), Parling, Mafi, Waldrom, Crane (capt).

Tries Tuilagi 2, Flood, Youngs. Cons Flood 2. Pens Flood 5.

Ospreys Fussell; Dirksen, Bishop, Beck, Walker; Biggar, Fotuali’i (Webb, 70); Bevington (D Jones, 49), Hibbard, A Jones (Jarvis, 48), A W Jones, Evans, R Jones, Tipuric, Thomas (Bearman, 54).

Try R Jones. Con Biggar. Pens Biggar 5. Sin-bin Bevington 35.

Referee R Poite (France). Attendance 20,224.

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