Knockout rugby’s inherently simple nature makes it sports most inherently dramatic spectacle as both teams are able to go hell for leather and leave it all on the field. Leicester Tigers won through a tighter set-piece game, a team stacked with brilliant jackal threats and just having that bit more grunt, in an attritional game of hard-working rugby.
As we have come to expect from this group, from a coaches and players perspective, the focus will promptly shift to finishing the job in the play-offs. For today, however, the team can celebrate a clinical semi-final win and the achievement of reaching a first-ever final at the home of English rugby, Twickenham, later this month.
The game starts off quite nip and tuck, both sides keeping things tight. There's a couple of strong carries in midfield to warm up the shoulders before a gainline shot from Katie Childs allows Charlotte Fray to come straight over the ball and win an early turnover to huge cheers. But Old Albanian’s are more than happy to throw their weight around with big shots, subsequent carries from Tigers being met with double tackles, lead by captain Kirsty Exley. But its Leicester’s captain who strikes the first crucial blow, as a penalty is called and Natasha Jones sends an inch perfect kick to touch. Samantha Williams’ throw is perfect to Roisin McBrien at the front of the line and Tigers get the shove on, with second-row Georgia Westwood barrelling over for a vital opening score. The rolling maul, so intrinsic to the Tigers DNA, coming to the forefront just as the side needed an edge.
With momentum seized, the Tigers Women’s side look to turn the screw early. There’s almost a case of deja vu just seconds later as Tash sends another lovely nudge right into the same corner. Although the referee judges the subsequent throw to be not straight, the cries of 'next job' from the scrum are promptly adhered to as they turn the ball over with a roaring shove. Albanians are defending for their lives already but hold strong, their goal line defence repelling big carries from Ofure Ugiagbe and Westwood before the attempt to go wide sees Louisa Burgham blasted into touch from prop Mica Gooding.
But the away side just cannot build on this when Tigers are so threatening at the breakdown and Tanya Bird jackals strongly to retake possession just a couple of phases later. There’s scrappy play but, shortly afterwards, McBrien repeats the turnover trick and then reacts quickest to take the tap and run through the hole. Fray is on her shoulder, able to drive that last few metres, powerful carrying sucking in defenders directly in front of the posts. Tigers execute to perfection, using the space to go wide and allow Louisa Burgham to dot down for the game’s second try.
The home side are suffocating their opposition, denying them any possession, neutralising threats before they can build momentum. This match report may read like Frederick Forsyth’s most acclaimed novel because this truly was ‘The Day of the Jackal’; not just because of the eponymous turnovers but the military like precision with which their set-pieces are executed.
The visitors look to gain a foothold by forcing a knock on right from the kick-off, flying up with intent to turn this contest around. Top scorer Caz Collie comes crashing into midfield looking to get involved for the first time but runs into a brick wall in captain Jones who forces the knock on with a bone-rattling hit.
Scrum dominance continues to paying off here as Tigers win a third scrum penalty of the game and again Jones kicks to touch. Seconds late the centre is battering through two, three players before the ball is ripped agonisingly close to the ljne. Tigers attack thus far has been deliberately very tight, hitting hard lines from both half-backs and keeping things simple.
In conversation with Steve Hanna prior to the game, he talked about the strength of Old Albanian's attack, their combination of strong runners in the back three and an intelligent kicking game that allows them to stretch the pitch and look to tire the Tigers defence. This can be seen here as Albanian's longest spell of possession sees them utilise Katie Johnson's clever kicks in behind from open play and the booming boot of full-back Collie to great effect, disorganising the Tigers defence. Collie has been looking for an opportunity to run all game and suddenly there's holes all over the pitch and she starts to motor. She smartly uses hands to execute a two-on-one on the right but Burgham has tracked the play and shows great endeavour to get across and force the knock on 15 metres out, relieving the side of the most pressure they have been under thus far.
With just ten minutes left of this first half, the home side win a vital, fifth (!), scrum penalty to stem that tide and flip momentum. They build back confidently and, once again, it’s the set-piece that grants them the breakthrough. Tigers run a brilliant move, dodging both the scrum half and the set maul to instead send an unmarked Tanya Bird straight through. She spins off one and goes down a couple of metres out but the home side react quickest and Westwood picks, drives and gets her second of the afternoon with great placement from the extended arm.
Half time: Leicester Tigers 19 – 0 Old Albanian Ladies
Going in three tries to the good, the second 40 minutes is based on that will to win, the grit to stay composed and stick to the plan. Tigers knock-on early but they keep their cool and walk Albanian's right back in the scrum and turn it over, a statement of dominance from the pack. That is reinforced just moments later as, with a penalty right on the line, the forwards fly in. First its a typically abrasive Fray on a big line, one that is followed up quickly by Ugiagbe who finishes the job and crashes down for a vital early score, the opposition unable to deal with her power. The prop, alongside hooker Samantha Williams, is making her 15th start of the season, the first two to reach this milestone and indicative of their importance to the way Tigers want to play up front.
Old Albanians are leaving it all on the field but in their desire to introduce those pacey threats, their play is reckless and they are struggling to build phases. In the chaos, Jones wins yet another Tigers turnover, reminiscent of the great ‘Tasha Turnover’ performance at this very ground, vs. West Park Leeds.
Although this has been a game lacking in running rugby, it's starting to open up here. McBrien is the one to instigate this, another quick tap penalty from her, this time from 60 odd metres, and she shoots through a gap. She steps one but is met well by Collie. Tigers look to go wide quickly through Draycott but Albanians are strong out wide and they win their first turnover of the game with a jackal of their own to banging boards and shouting substitutes on the away bench. However, the tides turn quickly on these shores and substitute Rebecca Church makes an impression early by winning a turnover of her own, to an even louder response from the home team.
The tides are indeed turbulent and they continue to shift, as do the away side in the best spell of the game. Whether due to coaching instruction or game management, they have readjusted their game plan and are now coming in on hard and tight lines, adapting to Tigers' wide defence. Old Albanian’s get their first points on the board with carry after carry after carry before lock Georgina Kreysa can go over.
Now we've a game on our hands, with just 20 minutes left. The wind in their sales, Albanian’s roar back and Collie finds space for the second time this game and makes it count, causing chaos. She offloads to fellow flyer Siobhan Drummond and, as Tigers scramble to cover, an unfortunate high tackle sees Charlotte Daley sin-binned shortly after entering the field (on her birthday of all days).
You know the creep of nervousness of a comeback brewing? It’s part of the beauty of sport but also the horror of it, the crushing inevitability overwhelming the senses of spectators and players alike and is the most volatile element of competition.
The Tigers must have that feeling now, camped on their own line, with 14 women on the field and facing a penalty. However, they will not lie down and let pressure consume them. From the tackles, McBrien pulls off yet another jackal (which means we must surely be into double figures for those now) to ease the burden enormously. They have the impetus now, each carry a statement that this game will not slip from their fingers, only a tight forward pass to a rampaging Fray (who was looking to storm through for a full pitch wonder try) stopping proceedings. But again, as Albanians look to build, the jackal comes, just a handful of phases later and finally Tigers can gain back some ground. Georgia Bradley combines well with Burgham out wide and the wing coolly steps inside her opposite number as we progress to half-way.
However, there’s that cold spectre of a comeback once again. The away side defend well in midfield, build phases of their own and earn a penalty which they kick to just a couple of metres out. As things look bleak at the back, McBrien again offers the ray of relief, a line-out claim from the skies allowing Tigers to clear their lines. But typically, this game turns on a dime and a chip over the top later sees Lucy Biggs dive from range to just touch down with her fingertips and, with 10 minutes to go and just 12 points the difference, the worry sets in for the spectators.
The comeback scare can paralyse a team or it can be the making of you. The worry can be sickening. But that cannot compare to the relief and the joy of seeing Charlotte Fray seize the game by the scruff of the neck and ensure there are no miracles today. Firstly, from kick-off, McBrien forces a knock on with a monstrous hit. Again, rather than rush anything, the home side stay composed and keep things simple. Waves of runners come in but this it's Fray who breaks down the door, her overs line sending defenders skittling and allowing her to drive over right in front of the posts for an alleviating seven points that allows the game to be put to bed.
There are a medley of carries following this but a scrappy final five minutes, punctuated by an Albanian’s last-breath try out wide against a defence that had put everything on the line before that. The whistle blows and pure happiness and the wider squad engulf the field with cheers. The Leicester Tigers women’s team are off to London!
Full-time: Leicester Tigers 31 – 19 Old Albanian Ladies