Battling Leicester have it all to lose in pool finale
Pool Two: Ospreys 15 Leicester 15Give the Tigers an inch and more often than not they will take the mile. It may be some time before the Ospreys work out precisely how they failed to win yesterday’s gripping contest on a cold, still Swansea afternoon but the situation in Pool Two is now simple. The winners of the game between Leicester and Toulouse will qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
As Richard Cockerill bullishly stressed afterwards, Leicester will always back themselves at Welford Road but their supporters should not get overly excited.
Although this draw has kept their title hopes intact, it almost certainly means their reward for qualifying would be a trip to one of the two French giants, Clermont Auvergne or Toulon.
Then again Leicester are nothing if not resourceful in a tight corner. They proved it again here, somehow contriving to lead 15-10 in the closing minutes after poor Dan Biggar had seen three penalty attempts bounce agonisingly away off the woodwork.
It took a searing break from the impressively swift Eli Walker and a diving late finish from the replacement Jonathan Spratt to pull Ospreys back level, but Biggar’s touchline conversion faded left of the posts, taking with it his side’s remaining hopes of qualification.
Biggar also missed four other kicks by a combined total of a foot or two, underlining the old truism that a miss is as good as a mile.
Welsh pain at failing to provide a single quarter-finalist was further magnified afterwards when it emerged the former Wales captain Ryan Jones had suffered a nasty thumb injury which threatens to add to the national squad’s hefty Six Nations casualty list.
“We think he’s got a dislocated thumb and it may have popped through the skin as well,” reported Ospreys’ head coach, Steve Tandy.
With the hooker Richard Hibbard (shoulder) also leaving the fray prematurely and Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Luke Charteris and Ian Evans already hors de combat, there are some sizeable forward holes to be filled in the Welsh squad.
Leicester, for their part, say England internationals Manu Tuilagi and Tom Youngs should be fit for the Toulouse showdown after both players limped off with strained calves.
Given Tuilagi left Swansea wearing a protective boot, that may prove an optimistic assessment but Cockerill, on virtually every topic, was firmly in glass half-full mode.
“We’d back ourselves to win against anyone at Welford Road,” he said. “Toulouse haven’t played that well away from home this season ...it should be a classic. I’d question some of our decision-making at times but the character of this side is never in doubt.”
Even Cockerill acknowledged, though, Leicester will have to be far sharper to see off the French aristocrats.
Had Ospreys finished everything they started in a one-sided first half, it might have been a rout.
Justin Tipuric was outstanding on the openside flank and Leicester also had no one with the inventiveness out wide of Richard Fussell and Walker.
By far the game’s dominant individual, nevertheless, was Ospreys’ Samoan scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i, who did little to dilute the argument he is currently the best number nine in the world.
For the first hour he helped put the Ospreys in total control everywhere save the scoreboard. On another day the Tigers might have been staring at a 20-point interval deficit.
Instead it was only 10-3, with the Ospreys scoring only one try through Joe Bearman after fine approach work by Fotuali’i, Tipuric and Ryan Bevington.
They also had to contend with the late withdrawal of the winger Ross Jones, who twisted an ankle in the warm-up and was replaced by the scrum-half Tom Habberfield.
The later departure of Jones and Hibbard also boosted the Tigers and close-range second-half tries by Ben Youngs and Niall Morris took them within touching distance of victory.
They reckoned without the determined Spratt leaping in like a salmon at the right corner flag.
It was the least the spirited Ospreys deserved.