Physicality in the carry and an incredible second half defensive performance, with no points conceded, made all the difference for a Leicester Tigers team who secured their second-ever Premiership victory and bragging rights for the first time over rivals Loughborough Lightning.
In an apt twist of fate, it’s an absolutely lightning quick start to the match, from both teams.
Tigers get off to a dream start, Tahlia Brody receiving kick off, carrying hard and earning a penalty for the hosts not rolling away. But that dream quickly becomes a nightmare as the line-out is taken but the presentation loses the ball, Lightning suddenly on the attack and eventually driving over the line through hooker Kathryn Treder.
Loughborough seek to press the advantage, setting wide and looking to use the hands. From a couple of phases, Claire Gallagher reads the play and steams in to intercept on Tigers 22, Lightning’s commitment to width meaning there’s no one to cover the backfield and allowing the Canadian international to go all the way to the line.
A chaotic start sees both sides struggle to gain consistency. Tigers suddenly have momentum and a big turnover at the ruck on halfway allows the side to build up to the hosts 22. The play breaks down, however and Lightning come back rapidly. Tigers are defending strongly, a double tackle by Roisin McBrien and Leah Bartlett backed up by a booming shot from Lisa Cockburn as Lightning come in waves.
Successive penalties given away means the hosts can stay on the front foot and they score their second try of the match in a mirror of the first. Kick to the corner, rolling maul gets set and Treder drives over for her second.
In conversation with Tigers lead analyst Kingsley Morgans prior to the match, he outlined territory as the primary focus of Lightning’s gameplan. The use of the long boot, the kick chase and the subsequent defensive pressure are the core tenants of the Loughborough experience and an area Tigers had to be prepared to defend. The opening minutes see this put into play almost immediately and is a tactic Lightning continually look to implement throughout.
However, with the chance to have more of the ball comes the chance to attack more and Tigers look to make the most of it. The visitors continue to run it back from these situations, the likes of Tahlia Brody, Julia Omokhuale and Catha Jacobs having plenty of room to get up to top speed and smash over the gainline.
With possession continuing to swing to & fro between the sides, this is a first half defined by moments; lost line-outs, big turnovers and massive tackles from both sides, Sadia Kabeya and Omokhuale ensuring both sides receive equal punishment in the physicality department.
Once again, however, it’s the set piece that’s the difference for the hosts. Tigers are penalised in three successive instances and, with the ball duly kicked to touch, Lightning get the rolling maul firing to put hooker Treder over for her hat-trick.
With just a few minutes left till half time, Tigers search for a score to get them back within touchinf distance. A moment of magic from Amy Relf, a spinning pass from the base sends McBrien straight through a hole, gets the side on the front foot after Brody and Bartlett smashed it up. Into Lightning’s half, Leicester play successive phases of carries then go wide, staying patient before swift hands sends Amelia Tutt over the line right before the half time whistle blows.
Meg Jones hits a huge touchline conversion and it’s game on.
Half time score: Loughborough Lightning 17 – 12 Leicester Tigers
The second half starts akin to the first as both sides trade possession and Lightning attempt to pin Tigers back in their own 22 through deep kicks.
Results to defend this are mixed, Francesca McGhie does really well to run it up and smash through contact but the return boots play right into the hosts hands who look to exploit the space, strong defending allowing Leicester a respite after several minutes of pressure, winning a penalty in their own 22.
Tigers then enjoy their best period of possession, a spell characterised by offloads and subsequent breaks, the side edging up the field and into Lightning’s half. The pick of these come from the two wings, McGhie and Tutt, both using their pace to cause problems before popping through to onrushing support, Feury and Omokhuale the beneficiaries.
But penalties continue to dog the side, infringements for not rolling away costing the side vital territory. It looks like Lightning will strike again from a line out but when the ball comes out the back, Meg Jones puts in an enormous shot on fellow Red Rose Helen Nelson driving her back and allowing the side a vital turnover and reprieve five metres out.
Now Tigers wrestle momentum back, swift hands and a continuation of the aforementioned offloads allowing the side to work their way into the oppositions half before the territory battle commences again. Catha Jacobs concludes a round of kick tennis after chasing down a Natasha Jones grubber through and levelling centre Bulou Mataitoga to force a knock on the 22.
The hosts defence holds steady as Tigers bang on the door for the next 10 minutes, spreading the play to its full width but unable to make that significant break through. Lightning are the team with the most tackles in this years Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby season and you can see why, the side defending with massive impetus.
Then a bolt from the blue as out of nowhere Tigers take the lead. With Tutt off and Feury to the wing, Gallagher has dropped to fullback and when she receives a kick she finds the space in behind, hitting a chip and chase, grubbering the ball over the line and touching down, leaping up in delight as she scores her second of the game.
The stadium waits with baited breath as with the scores tied, Meg Jones smashes her kick from the right hand side to allow the visitors to edge ahead.
With eight minutes to go, the game is on a knife-edge; Tigers defend well and win the ball back but then lose it a couple of minutes later, Loughborough steaming through on an inside line. The crowd is on their feet with an expectation they’ll go all the way but Tigers fly back to cover and win a massive turnover at the ruck to win back possession on their own 22.
The side win the line out and go about edging forward conservatively keeping the ball tight, the roars from the Tigers bench coming when Brody makes a break to eat up 10 metres before Ugiagbe hits a storming line to drive right through her opposite number.
This effort culminates in a penalty right in front of the posts on the home side’s 22. Meg Jones steps up and slots it between the sticks, allowing Tigers that bit of breathing room and furthering the lead.
More than anything, it eats up precious seconds on the clock. With just a minute remaining, Tigers just keep the ball tight and keep it ticking down until the ref signals for the game and a jubilant Leicester side celebrate a huge derby day victory.