A tough loss at the CorpAcq Stadium meant Leicester Tigers suffered defeat in the opening round of the 23/24 Allianz Cup, which doubled as the club's first competitive match in the top flight, 36-19 to Sale Sharks.
The excitement was palpable both from players and fans as the 2023/24 season gets underway and it’s Tigers on top from the off.
From minute one you can see the offloading, ‘keeping the ball moving’ philosophy instilled into this team.
From kick-off there’s a pair of slick-moves. Firstly, Ofure Ugiagbe taking a wide line off 10 and smartly going back instead for Amy Orrow to crash through trailing arms and make ground. A phase later, Charlotte Fray takes the ball high and offloads out the back to Amanda Swartz who carries well.
These gradual metres allow for progression just outside the Sale 22 and a penalty is given, promptly kicked to touch. Unfortunately, the first line out of the game is deemed not straight and from the resulting scrum, Sale clear long into touch.
Fielded well by Caz Collie but Roisin McBrien runs a smart line to cause chaos in the sale backfield. The back-row are operating as edge forwards, the speed of the vice-captain, Morgan Richardson and Becky Noon utilised effectively to catch the home team out on the blindside.
The line-out fairs far better second time around and the rolling maul is on, Fray claiming high! They drive close to the line but a Sale infringement allows for a penalty five metres out, with Tigers opting for the scrum.
Here the Tigers go wide, all the way to the right. Sale can scramble across to cover but there’s space in the mddle for Fray to drive through two tackles, offload to McBrien on a great line and the flanker opens the scoring.
At this point in the match, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tigers would continue dominating; they had seen all of the ball and were looking unstoppable in attack. However, sport is a cruel mistress.
First, Sale immediately roar back into this with their first attack of the game. From the kick-off they thieve the ball back and play wide instantly, all the way left and then all the way right. McBrien covers really smartly but the referee calls for offside. Here we see front-up rugby as promised, with phase after phase of rapid rucking and hard lines as the home side go over in the right corner.
One minute later and suddenly Sale have doubled their lead; a couple of strong carries and they have burst through the middle. Two phases of crash ball follow and, although Tigers do well to scramble and cover, the holes are too much and Sale’s physicality pays dividend in a second score.
The first 15 minutes it’s Tigers are dominating possession and playing with confidence and just like that it all changes. The team look completely different to just minutes earlier.
Following these scores, there’s a tough injury to Charlotte Fray. This allows time for the side to regroup and reset but the lock’s dynamism is a big early loss.
It looks for all the world like there will be a third try in succession but a trademark shin splinter-er from Churchy Knight forces a wayward offload to be thieved by Caz Collie. The former goalkeeper carries up the 22 and kicks long to the opposition’s 22.
Although Sale can find gaps and clear their lines, they can’t find touch and Collie again booms a clearance up field, one that is spilled into touch by Sale right wing. Collie has been exceptional at relieving pressure, thus far, the fullback with several commanding boots.
Finally, the crowd begins to roar again, the momentum has swung back the way of Tigers.
But, once again, Sale play spoiler. In a mirror of try two, there’s a big break through the middle on halfway and Sale only have to play two phases before touching down again.
Tigers misery is furher compounded as, moments later, there’s a yellow card for DeFilippo.
And yet, despite going down to 14 players, a bone rattling hit from Ofure Ugiagbe, putting a swift end to an ongoing kick battle, allows Collie to break down the left and begin building phases against a scrambling home defence; Tigers build phases but just cannot break down this Sale side who have been everywhere.
An opening flurry and strong finish could not make up for three clinical tries by Sale and a 15 minute period in which the home side dominated proceedings. The first half saw a hugely competitive contest if nothing else but it’s one that sees Tigers behind at the break.
Half Time: Sale Sharks 19 - 07 Leicester Tigers
The second-half gets off to an unfortunate start as Tigers knock on early to cede possession.
Sale are relentless in their building of short ball, zero errors in their phase play as they just grind down the defence and start the second 40 minutes in the worst possible manner for Tigers.
Sharks attempt to press their advantage further with the wind firmly in their sails but again Tigers do not give in and the away side claim the next score.
It’s a Tigers counter-ruck that sees Katie Childs in a two-on-two on halfway. The centre kicks through, spotting the fullback up in the line and it allows Charlotte Daley to hare after the ball. The wing catches the Sale captain right on her line and then clears the ball out, joined immediately by a slew of forwards; the first group turn the ball over, the second there to drive inches from the line before the third, lead by Kat Turner can drive over with two Sale players hanging off of her.
But typically, Sale grab that momentum right back. Their relentless phase play again proves unstoppable and they win a penalty on the five metre line. They tap and go and, unusually, go out the back of runners to set up a huge miss pass and go over in the corner.
Just as it looks like the game has slipped away for good, again, Tigers come roaring back and give us hope, all from a phenomenal break by Roisin McBrien. The flanker hits a brilliant hard line on the left wing and sees open space aheads of her, eventually caught by the full back on the 22. Tigers stay composed, play a couple of strong phases, lead by Alana Bainbridge, before whpping the ball wide for Charlotte Daley to dot down on the right wing.
It looks like Sale will swing that momentum right back immediately but Zoë Evans is the saviour. A breaking Sale wing shoots into open space from an offload, sprinting from halfway with nothing but the line ahead of her; but Evans absolutely bolts it back, the substitute a braided blur and magically tackles the unsuspecting scorer into touch.
The next twenty minutes mirrors the back end of the first half, a real back and forth scrap. There are strong carries in midfield from the likes of Tanya Bird and Becky Noon, whilst there’s good feet out wide held by Amy Relf and Evans. The match relentlessly swings back to forth, both sides entering one another’s 22 but unable to convert.
As the game entered the dying minutes, Morgan Richardson makes a superb break in midfield, from well inside her own half. The flanker bounces off two tackles before accelerating out right, to be felled just 15 metres out.
But, in a timely metaphor for the whole game, just as everything seems to be going Tigers way, the script is flipped and Sharks who come out on top. The carries are good but Sharks intercept on one offload too many and break from their own 10 metre line. Evans again busts a lung to make it back but it’s a two-on-one and pass is really composed to winger Holly Thorpe who finishes the score and the match.
The most important element of this whole day was to show that the team could compete at the top level, to show clear progress from the side that reached the Championship play-off final in April.
Despite the result, Tigers certainly showed they can hang at the top level, even if the results have not come right away.
It will bring scant comfort to the players and coaches on the bus home. But, all stories must begin somewhere. Tigers will look to go again next week.
Full Time: Sale Sharks 36 – 19 Leicester Tigers