Leicester Tigers retained their title as Academy Under-18 League champions with a 34-31 victory over Gloucester Rugby in the season’s final at Allianz Park on Sunday.
Just 24 hours after Tigers had played in Round 13 of the Gallagher Premiership season at the same venue, the club’s under-18s returned to defend the trophy won for a first time in 2018.
And they led from the second minute but had to ride out a second-half fightback which trimmed a 20-point lead to just three points before securing a second league crown.
Tigers, with the wind at their backs in the first half, opened with an early try from Sam Costelow – who contributed 19 points – and added two more through wing Joe Browning to lead 24-0 at half-time.
Gloucester, in their third final, got back into the game with two tries in just three minutes before Archie Vanes provided a fourth for Tigers as they led 34-14 approaching the final quarter.
But Gloucester fought their way back to cut the deficit to just three points and nerves must have been stretched as they hit a penalty against the post which would have levelled the scores before Tigers regained their feet and closed the game out.
The breakthrough score came with less than two minutes on the clock as centre Costelow got on the end of some smart work on the right to score. With time to get under the posts, too, he gave himself the perfect chance to add the extras.
Tigers quickly added to that advantage when Gloucester tried to play their way out of trouble but superb work over the ball by centre Ronnie du Randt won back possession and set Browning on a run-in to score on the left. Costelow had a more testing kick this time but made no mistake as he stretched the lead to 14 points with 10 minutes gone.
It was just the start the defending champions would have wished for and more neat work from the forwards near halfway, first at a lineout drive and then in stealing opposition ball at the next set-piece, provided Costelow with the chance to kick as penalty to make it 17-0 on the quarter-hour mark.
A tackle from prop Rob Hardwick knocked ball loose from Gloucester hands near halfway as the Tigers defence had its first test and scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet quickly took play back upfield with a kick to the right. This time, though, the Cherry and Whites were able to play out safely.
The combined efforts of skipper Sam Eveleigh and back-row partner Ollie Ashworth snuffed out the next attack, winning turnover ball on the floor and when Tigers had to defend a lineout in the corner, the defence stood up again to force an error and van Poortvliet kicked clear.
Gloucester, though, enjoyed their best spell of pressure and possession until Freddie Steward’s 50-metre clearance down the right finally had them back-pedalling and quickly led to a third Tigers try.
This time, after George Martin secured lineout ball on the right, Tigers put the ball through hands along the backline and Browning used a strong hand-off to beat the final defender and score his second on the left. Costelow judged his conversion kick well to make it 24-0 just two minutes before half-time.
More strong work over the ball at the start of the second half earned a penalty and Costelow immediately pointed to the posts, adding a three-pointer.
Gloucester got their first points on the board just moments later with a quick attack down the left which put scrum-half Stephen Varney in to score. Fly-half George Barton added the conversion.
And they produced a similar attack to add a second try just moments later with wing Louis Reece-Zammit dotting down next to the corner flag.. Barton’s conversion went in off the far post to make it 27-14 in Tigers’ favour.
The scores clearly put wind in Gloucester sails and Barton prodded play to the left again, but wing Leo Gilliland did well to field it and then take play forward to allow Tigers to regain their composure.
They did more than that, too, as Costelow’s well-struck kick into the left-hand corner gave the Tigers pack the opportunity they needed to drive to the line and hooker Archie Vanes made the final metres to score his team’s fourth try of the day. Costelow added another conversion to make it 34-14 with 20 minutes remaining.
They couldn’t shake off Gloucester though as Cherries hooker Ethan Hunt scored from a close-range lineout. Barton was unable to add the extra two points with his conversion kick.
A penalty try followed when Tigers brought down a lineout drive and Reece-Zammnit immediately ran in his second in the corner to bring it back to 34-31 in Tigers’ favour with less than 15 minutes still to play.
Martin and Steward carried strongly as Tigers returned to the other end of the field but a penalty award relieved the Gloucester defence and a second whistle from the referee, for offside by Tigers, gave Barton sight of the posts from the 10-metre line. He struck it well but saw the ball come back off the post and Steward was strong enough to make vital metres upfield.
A big tackle by Martin and Will Backhouse earned a penalty for Tigers but Costelow this time saw his kick from 35 metres come back off the post and, although Kit Smith was there to claim possession, Tigers couldn’t create an opening.
They got tested in defence again, particularly when Gloucester played up towards the line with a penalty advantage, but Leicester covered across the field and closed the game out with their defensive work on the floor .