Leicester staged a stunning late fightback to dent Bath’s GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP title ambitions in a Welford Road thriller.
England flanker Tom Croft scored two tries – his second in injury-time – to overhaul Bath, who had led 22-9.
Fly-half Derick Hougaard kicked 14 points from four penalties and a match-winning conversion, yet Bath will feel aggrieved after outscoring Tigers 3-2 on tries. Lock Stuart Hooper, hooker Pieter Dixon and wing Joe Maddock all breached Leicester’s defence, yet the defeat ruined any chance Bath had of catching league leaders London Irish.
For much of the game, Tigers played as though they were preoccupied by continued speculation about the future of their head coach Heyneke Meyer. Meyer recently flew home to South Africa because of family illness – but there are suggestions he might not return to the East Midlands.
Meyer, who masterminded the Blue Bulls’ Super 14 title triumph in 2007 and only became Leicester boss last summer, has handed caretaker coaching duties to his Leicester assistant Richard Cockerill. And former Leicester front-row warrior Cockerill could only wince at Bath’s degree of control for most of the match, which was underlined when Maddock scored a superb 56th-minute try.
Fly-half Butch James, Bath’s most dominant player, kicked two conversions and a penalty to leave Leicester in all kinds of strife before Croft sparked an unexpected revival by touching down 14 minutes from time. Leicester ultimately prevailed, digging deep into their renowned reserves of character after seeing England centre Dan Hipkiss stretchered off nursing what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Both sides were hit by late withdrawals, as Tigers went into battle minus their New Zealand import Scott Hamilton and England international number eight Jordan Crane. Johne Murphy replaced Hamilton, while Craig Newby took over from Crane, with Bath losing lock Justin Harrison and skipper Michael Lipman because of stomach bugs. Both players featured on the bench – they were replaced by Hooper and James Scaysbrook, respectively – as Bath targeted their eighth victory of the Premiership campaign.
Hougaard, starting instead of a rested Toby Flood, kicked Leicester ahead through an early long-range penalty, but Bath forged ahead just four minutes later. James powered into the heart of Leicester’s defence, and with Tigers stretched, Hooper claimed a close-range touchdown that James converted.
The score was deserved reward for Bath’s far greater sense of adventure, and they should have scored again 11 minutes later after Hougaard missed drop-goal and penalty chances. James’ superbly-weighted kick created a golden chance, but Bath’s rugby league recruit Shontayne Hape knocked on with the line at his mercy.
Hougaard cut the deficit through a 30th-minute penalty, but James then found his range five minutes later as Bath ended a half they dominated 15-6 ahead.
Hougaard’s third penalty reduced the Bath advantage to six points, and both coaches began to ring the changes, with Leicester skipper Martin Corry among those replaced. Former England hooker George Chuter was among those who appeared off the Leicester bench, which sparked a spell of Tigers pressure as they looked to erase Bath’s lead. But with the pressure mounting, so Bath conjured a memorable try thanks to James’ invigorating approach.
Instead of taking a safety-first option of kicking to touch, the South African chased his own clearance into space, found Maddock in support and then exchanged passes with the New Zealander before Maddock touched down. James slotted the touchline conversion for good measure, taking Bath 13 points clear and in pursuit of a try-scoring bonus point.
But Leicester finished with a nine-point scoring burst, sealing the deal during injury time when Croft claimed his second try and Hougaard landed a match-winning conversion. And right on the whistle, Harrison was sin-binned, underlining a startling Bath demise as the overwhelming majority in a capacity 17,948 crowd roared Leicester home.