The first question to boss Richard Cockerill included the phrase ‘skin of the teeth stuff’ and the Tigers boss answered in usual straight-forward fashion, though underneath he must have wondered if the team could celebrate the vital victory first before beginning the post-mortem.
Tigers, looking low on confidence and continuously disrupted by injuries, as well as being criticised for lacklustre performances in wins over Worcester and Gloucester in the previous two weeks, went to the Madejski Stadium to face a London Irish team who had just won away to both Saracens and Wasps.
This was a fixture with potential banana skin written all over it, though with Tigers in fifth place in the table and Irish on the up following some shaky beginnings, perhaps that is doing the hosts something of a dis-service.
Tigers again had to make changes, with Tom Youngs back with England, Graham Kitchener sidelined, then Anthony Allen and Matt Smith withdrawn at short notice. Owen Williams came in at fly-half, Niki Goneva moved to the centre and they were again without the likes of Tuilagi, Croft, Parling, Morris and Benjamin.
Strength in depth has always been key, and you could argue it is the constant need to chop and change that has had an effect this season rather than the just the quality of the names that are missing.
Still, Tigers travelled in defiant mood, perhaps stung by those who felt ‘winning ugly’ had not been enough in the previous fortnight.
A good start was in order against a side in buoyant spirits after successive wins away from home. That good start lasted just seconds as three players left the claim of the restart to each other, the ball bounced back towards the Tigers tryline and the visitors gave away a penalty almost under the posts.
Too early for warning bells perhaps, but there’s no denying the ‘Oh no’ factor among travelling supporters.
Thankfully, Tigers recovered and, other than giving away far too many penalties, thoroughly deserved the win with tries from Ben Youngs early on, Logo Mulipola in the same corner and then Niki Goneva.
The score from Goneva was remarkable in its execution. First, the Fijian dropped the pass, saw it bounce backwards, then picked up to beat a tackle from the world-class James O’Connor and squeezed past two more defenders before despatching a third on his backside as he dotted down. Williams added a touchline conversion and Tigers were able to enjoy a 20-9 advantage.
Penalties, however, kept Irish in the game and they ended it by pushing Tigers hard towards their own line after Thomas Waldrom had been yellow carded. A ‘try’ was chalked off after a knock-on almost within reach of the line as the game reached its final 60 seconds, but a draw or defeat would have been harsh on a side who had already scored three of their own.
Waldrom went some way to redeeming himself with a pack-up under pressure at the resultant scrum as he rejoined the match, and efficient recycling allowed Mathew Tait get the ball off the pitch and JP Doyle to blow for full time;. It was the only whistle greeted with applause from the travelling supporters in the whole day.
Well done Tigers, three in a row. And still we want more!