Tigers have been caught in the critical cross-fire on numerous occasions this season but they're still in there fighting at the business end of the season.Victory in Round 22 secured third place in the Aviva Premiership table, with one more win than Saracens and Exeter Chiefs, just one fewer than top-two seeds Northampton and Bath. The critics have described this as a team in decline, a club failing to reach expectations. But, perhaps, like sunnier summer holidays, snowier winters and bigger Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, they are guilty of viewing the past with the benefit of rose-tinted hindsight. Tigers have been more successful than any other club in the last 15 years or so, but it has never been pure plain-sailing. There have always been scrapes along the way. In the years when Tigers won four successive league titles and back-to-back European Cups, the team included the talents of Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Austin Healey, Lewis Moody, Ben Kay, Martin Corry and the rest but, as Richard Cockerill acknowledges, they still didn’t win every game. That run to the top of the European game, don’t forget, included a late try from Leon Lloyd on that magical day in Paris when all seemed lost, a long-range in-off penalty from Tim Stimpson in the closing minutes of a semi-final and ‘The Hand of Back’ scrum in the second final in Cardiff. Most of the team that topped Europe twice also had to come through two Wildcard wins in the following years to maintain the proud record of qualifying for Europe’s elite club competition. The run to the knockout stages of the Premiership rugby season has included its fair share of drama, with precious wins on the last day of the season, including 2008 when Tigers were seventh in the table with the clock ticking down on their record when Tom Varndell popped up to score against Harlequins and propel the defending champions back into the top four. And they still had to go to league leaders Gloucester in the semi-final, and won it with a last-gasp drop goal from Andy Goode. You’d have to go a long way to match the drama of the 2010 final against Saracens when Scott Hamilton’s restart catch sent Dan Hipkiss away to score in the last minute and then Geoff Parling stole crucial lineout possession with the clock down to the 80-minute mark. It is worth noting, too, that clubs like Bristol and London Irish have contested knockout fixtures with Tigers in the last 10 years but have never been as close since. Bath have just reached the last four again for the first time in five years, and former champions Harlequins, Sale Sharks and Newcastle have finished in the bottom half of the league table this season. Gloucester too have not repeated their form of 2007 when they reached Twickenham. Throughout it all, Leicester Tigers have been the constant. Whether flattening any resistance, digging out the wins or riding out their luck, successive teams have found ways to get to the knockout rounds of the season. It is a remarkable effort, but don’t think for one minute that it has ever been straight forward. Perhaps that’s part of the fun!
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