Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Revenge in air as Leicester Tigers hope to cure their travel sickness

Leicester Tigers head coach Richard Cockerill knows that the Premiership champions could be looking in better shape ahead of tonight's challenge

Richard Cockerill was in fine form earlier this week as he assessed the task that lay before him and his squad.

The rather excitable director of rugby at Leicester Tigers – who frequently calls things just as he sees them – was in the midst of going through his side's list of missing players, which includes such notables as Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Steve Mafi and Mat Tait, when he hit upon Argentina prop Marcos Ayerza who is not even in the country.

Even though the Rugby Championship is over, Cockerill gave Ayerza time off back home to attend his sister's wedding this weekend and be present at the birth of his first child.

"Unfortunately, when I gave him permission, I didn't have the fixtures in front of me," Cockerill stated, before adding the punch-line.

"Marcos will not leave Argentina until his wife gives birth so I have sent him a curry to see if it does the job!"

All joking aside, Cockerill – who has, not surprisingly, made his views clear in coming out against the current Heineken Cup structure and any potential move to sanction English club players internationally should things get really heavy in the on-going impasse and threatened breakaway – knows that the Premiership champions could be looking in better shape ahead of tonight's challenge.

Their recent European away record is certainly in need of an overhaul as they have triumphed in only one of their last six encounters away from Welford Road and that was a 14-13 nail-biter at Treviso last season.

And Cockerill needs no reminding of the last time they were in Belfast on European duty when Ulster trounced the Tigers 41-7. All the talk has, therefore, been about absorbing that lesson and meeting fire with fire. Rest assured, even if they are weaker than they would like, the Tigers are still a formidable animal.

With Geoff Parling back in harness, Cockerill is hoping that the England and Lions second row can inspire those around him in a pack which still contains some serious ordinance in Louis Deacon and Ed Slater as well as fellow Lions Tom Youngs and Dan Cole, with the latter expected to wreak some damage at scrum time.

Behind the scrum, there also lies a very dangerous backline –coached by former Ireland internationals Geordan Murphy and Paul Burke – with Ben Youngs, skipper Toby Flood, former Leinster player Niall Morris and the muscular Fijian winger Vereniki Goneva all able to potentially make light of the wrecking ball Tuilagi's absence with a combination of high skill and, in Goneva's case, raw power.

Last Saturday's battling draw with Northampton Saints – when Leicester came back from trailing 19-9 with 10 minutes to go – will also have girded the Tigers' loins to slug it out with Ulster and clearly they are putting a great deal of faith in attacking their hosts' scrum and using the power of their front five to force Ulster onto the back foot.

The sense that there is some unfinished business to be done at Ulster's home is inescapable while the need for the Tigers to mix again with Europe's elite by replicating the great European achievements of Martin Johnson's time – when they won the Heineken Cup back-to-back in 2001 and 2002 – is a target that seems worth striving for even if domestic success has a much more potent allure.

Losing out to eventual winners Toulon in last season's quarter-final is clearly not good enough for a coach as ambitious and, indeed, outspoken as Cockerill, nor indeed a club which has not made a Heineken Cup showdown since 2009, when they tasted defeat for the second time in three years.

It's now about setting out their credentials as a side with serious designs on succeeding on two fronts as well as avenging the hurt of their two previous European visits to Belfast.

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