Leicester Tigers beat arguably the Aviva Premiership’s best side Saracens 21-13 on an emotional day at Welford Road on Saturday.
Emotional because last week one of Tigers’ own, Fijian back Seru Rabeni, passed away at the age of just 37.
Rabeni, was a two-time Premiership title winner with Leicester in his five years at the club. He scored 18 tries in 63 appearances for the club and is remembered for enjoying playing the game of rugby as much as anyone ever has.
But don’t let the constant smile he wore on a rugby field fool you. Rabeni was one of the most punishing tacklers in the world game during his peak and he would have been proud off the physicality shown by his old team on Sunday.
A kindred spirit, Logo Mulipola, had one of his most impressive games of the season, despite getting a yellow card for a forearm smash on Saracens centre Marcelo Bosch in the first half.
He looked fit, carried well and tackled big. Had a couple of passes not gone forward or down before reaching him he may also have got on the scoresheet.
Saracens are undoubtedly one of the best sides in the league, they sit in second in the table and have only slipped from top spot since losing half their players to new Six Nations Grand Slam winners England. And they are some players to lose, fly-half Owen Farrell, locks Maro Itoje and George Kruis and the Vunipola brothers. Arguably four of those five players have been England’s best performers this championship so meeting a Saracens side without them in was certainly good timing.
Leicester were missing a trio of stars as well. Dan Cole scored just his second try in 64 Tests in England’s 31-21 win over France on Saturday to earn their first Grand Slam in 13 years.
Ben Youngs came off the bench and made a telling contribution as well, putting the kick in for Anthony Watson’s try. Manu Tuilagi was named on the bench but not used on this occasion which must have driven Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill mad because they need their star man for the big games.
But make no mistake this Saracens side, even without the likes of their England players, are a quality side. They use their collective power to pound sides into submission but Leicester were having none of it on Sunday. Tigers doubled up in the tackles and flew off the defensive line. It’s the only way to play Saracens and it worked.
Former Oakham schoolboy Alex Goode put Saracens ahead in the 13th minute after a scrum penalty, harshly called against Marcos Ayerza.
But then almost as if Seru was smiling down on the club he loved, Leicester’s pressure in defence saw the ball go down and Peter Betham, playing in Rabeni’s favoured position of outside centre, was first to react, picking the ball up and bursting down-field and then earning a penalty for Burns to slot. All while the crowd clapped on the 14th minute to mark Rabeni’s shirt number.
Owen Williams has been making his way back from injury but looked bright at inside centre and very nearly sparked Leicester’s opening try - breaking the line when Schalk Brits burst out the line. Only a brilliant tackle from Saracens’ flanker Kelly Brown, tracking back, stopped Jono Kitto crossing the line.
In almost a rerun of the incident, a nice break from Adam Thompstone set Kitto free again but another great tackle from Scotland international Brown saved a try. Saracens were hanging on.
The only concern is Tigers failed to be clinical when in the red zone. For all their energy in defence, the big runners were too static when they got the ball in attack and the backs were running into defenders rather than holes. You don’t get too many chances against the top sides.
In the end they had to make do with another Burns penalty and went in 6-3 up at half time.
Just two minutes after the break Nils Mordt was shown yellow for not one but two cynical pull backs on Betham after he charged the ball down. There is an argument to be made that it should have been a penalty try as well because there was no cover behind.
In the end it didn’t matter, after a dozen phases Burns dummied his way past three defenders, spotting a prop and second row in front of him, to score under the posts.
The impressive thing for Leicester is the adjustments they made at half time, playing deeper in attack and using a pivot man after the break to get away from the on-rushing Saracens defence.
In the 51st minute Tigers crossed for their second. It was as scrappy a try as you will see but they all count the same. The move originally broke down with the ball hitting the deck but Owen Williams responded brilliantly to break down the blindside and work it through the hands for Vereniki Goneva. On his way back to his own half after scoring he paid tribute to his departed countryman Ribeni whose name was written on the strapping on his wrist.
But Saracens, even without all their internationals are always a threat and two men who have recently worn the red rose for England, Richard Wigglesworth and Goode, combined for the latter to pivot over the line.
With Goode dragging Saracens to within one score with another penalty, Burns did exactly what everyone wants him to do and showed calmness in the heat of the moment, dropping a goal to secure the first full house, a try, penalty, conversion and drop goal, for Leicester Tigers for 18 years. The last being Joel Stransky against Harlequins in 1998.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill was certainly happy with his side’s performance.
He said: “I thought it was a proper Leicester performance today, the physicality was good and so was our appetite for the game.”
“We’ve had a tough week of training both mentally and physically but we saw the results of that today.
“We’ve performed like that a few times this season, Exeter and Stade Francais here were both very good, and we saw that again today. Saracens are a good side even when they are missing some key guys.
“We played well, controlled the game well. The tight five and set piece contest was good. We worked really hard and we deserved to win. There won’t be any complaints from anybody about the result today.
“We didn’t take out opportunities in the first half when we should have had one or two tries and I did wonder if that might come back and bite us.
“We kept it positive and kept playing well and we scored a couple of nice tries and deserved to win.”
Next up for Leicester is a trip to Sale, who ended their unbeaten record at home earlier this season with a 10-3 victory. Tigers will be hoping to keep their momentum going to keep their final place in the Aviva Premiership top four intact and going back into the Europe where they face Stade Francais on April 10.