‘If we can out-rugby them on Sunday, I truly believe we win this game’.
The last word at training on Friday night, spoken by Senior Tom Hudson offers notes of possibility, of hope going into a fixture against one of the very best sides in the world.
Words, of course, can only go so far, it's the actions of Leicester Tigers today that will get supporters excited; this performance, although Tigers couldn’t quite make it over the line, with the side just five points behind with five minutes to go, was laden with promise and thrilling highs.
The game begins with a deep kick into Chiefs territory and after just four phases of gain line defence, the visitors hand possession back to Tigers.
Tonnes of tight caries to the line, the pack sending in pods of three each time; props combine as Ugiagbe pops to Jade Jones, Tahlia Brody makes metes, followed by a storming run by Ofure Ugiagbe who takes three players to stop her bludgeoning run.
There’s moments of excitement with a clean break from Meg Jones, tackled well by full-back Lori Cramer. As Chiefs are scrambling back to defend and Tigers smartly go wide to Fran McGhie, with the Scottish international hitting a perfect line at pace and the crowd are on their feet as she powers through one tackle before being hauled down five metres out. After a few carries in the tight, play is called back for a high tackle on McGhie.
Tigers are just their own worst enemies from here; the ball is kicked to touch but a crushing miscommunication means the ball sails through the hands and into those of Chiefs who break up the field; a scrum is won well but we unfortunately knock on in the process; the team defend doggedly but there are penalties given away.
Last year’s Premiership finalists strike first and second here, both from driving mauls from five metres out.
There are elements of frustration but with four debutants starting and five players playing their first ever Premiership match, there’s still time for it all to click.
Aided by lots of quick ball from the half backs, the new centre partnership of Rebecca de Filippo and Meg Jones are on a proper mission today, both driving through tackles, making offloads, making breaks and keeping strong in defence.
But as the game grows on, Tigers stay in the fight and grow into the match. Jones confidently gets points on the board with a well-struck penalty from 30 metres out.
Frustratingly Chiefs get another penalty and third driving maul is scored with just over five minutes left on the clock.
But just two minutes later our Team GB 7s star has the crowd back on their feet: a beautifully delicate chip and chase is collected well, as Jones steps wide and just turns on the afterburners, flying past the Chiefs wing and scoring a belting try. Jones then following it up with a storming conversion from the right hand side.
To keep the momentum rolling, the bomb squad of international props Keia Mae Sagapolu Sanele and Leah Bartlett have come on. Their impact is immediate with a huge drive on a Chiefs scrum that throws them off their game. Moments later, a Tigers driving maul sees them make great metres and Bartlett peel off and drive round to end the half with the wind in Tigers sails.
Half time score: Leicester Tigers 10 – 15 Exeter Chiefs
Straight out of the blocks, Tigers level the scores at breakneck pace.
Receiving the kick off on their own 22, Leicester play a few phases, incrementally building through tight carries. Then Keia Mae decides to kick things up a gear, hitting a bludgeoning line and drives through her opposite number, handing off the cover and offloading to Charlotte Fray who makes another few metres as Tigers drive past the opposition 22.
From there it’s just a case of swift hands outright with a beautiful final flourish of a pop pass to put over Caz Collie, who touches down on her Premiership debut.
Keia Mae has been sensational since coming on, the USA international prop brutally efficient at both set piece and open play, hitting massive shots on all who venture into her channel.
The momentum is halted briefly as Chiefs score another drivingmaul, following a couple of penalties in midfield, however Tigers show their toughness to roar back immediatly.
There’s more phase play here building up to the opposition half where a penalty is kicked to touch. Off the lineout, the ball goes out the back of a charging De Filippo to Tash who hits her Jones counterpart who flings it wide to McGhie.
The Scot has a lot to do still but makes the catch overhead, burns her opposite number for pace, brutalises another with a hand off and has enough gas in the tank to dive over and score to restore parity for a second time and score a debut try.
Meg Jones is on an absolute mission still, chip and chasing from kick off, then tackling the catcher before then tackling the player the catcher offloads to!
But again, yet another driving maul sees Chiefs go over a few minutes later. The play gets scrappy as neither side wants to give an inch here, both well aware time is ticking down. Chiefs do well to strike first as the timer ticks to just ten minutes remaining, scoring wide.
But then Tigers are right back in it again! The home side score straight from kick-off, when the ball bounces and is claimed on the run from a rampaging Fray. The lock makes 30 metres amidst a flurry of hand offs and bounced tackles as she makes it to 10 metres out. The ball is recycled through hands in short, sharp bursts of running, before a penalty is taken quickly with a tap and go, Eva Donaldson driving over for a try on her Tigers and Premiership debut.
Jones again confidently slots the conversion and it’s now just a five point game with less than 10 minutes on the clock!
Ultimately, this score will prove to be a false dawn; Chiefs manage two additional tries in the time remaining to stretch just out of reach, with Tigers throwing the kitchen sink at them to try and grasp what would be a famous win in the club’s short history.
In the end, it wasn’t to be today. But, the way the team have established themselves at the elite level, the way they lighted up the crowd at Mattioli Woods Welford Road and the way they showed exactly why they wear the Tigers badge, with immense fight, resilience and passion for the shirt are all reasons to be immensely proud.
That’s our benchmark. We go again next week against the Champions and in two weeks time, we’re. back home for a first-ever local derby.