Belfast Telegraph

Take Tigers by the tail, urges exile Steenson

By Niall Crozier

Ulsterman Gareth Steenson has advised his native province to take the game to Leicester Tigers in Friday night's Heineken Cup opener.

The Exeter Chiefs out-half speaks as one who knows, having faced the defending Aviva Premiership champions as recently as September 29.

Leicester won 21-9 that afternoon at Sandy Park, with Exeter paying the price for having shown them too much respect in the first half, by the end of which their guests led 15-0.

Three Steenson penalties saw the Chiefs outscore the champions 9-6 in the second half but by that stage the damage had been done. His hope is that Ulster will learn as a result of the painful lesson Exeter were taught.

"They're very physical up front; they know exactly how to squeeze a team," was his assessment of Leicester.

"But we really didn't show up for the first 40 minutes. We played like a team who were afraid to lose to them and didn't really give ourselves a chance.

"But after half-time we came out and played the way we like to play. We took the game to them and got ourselves back into it, so if you build phases you can play against them.

"They have a good, physical pack with a few British Lions in there, so that's the way they prefer it – a physical battle. But you definitely can play against them provided you're prepared to go through your phases and keep the ball."

Leicester drew their most recent match, Saturday afternoon's home date with Northampton Saints having finished 19-19.

The Tigers were fortunate to escape with a share of the spoils against the opponents they pipped to the title in last season's Premiership final at Twickenham.

"We've played both of them this season and they're similar in that they work to establish forward dominance. If you let either of them do that, you're in for a long afternoon," Steenson said.

"Leicester have quality right the way through, so they're going to be a tough side to beat.

"And I think they'll be targeting the Heineken Cup because definitely in the past two weeks they've put out a big strong side so that they'll be ready for it.

"I know they're going to want to fight on both fronts – Premiership and Europe – and they're strong enough to do that. They're a good side."

Asked what weaknesses, if any, he had detected in his recent close-up look at the Tigers, the 29-year-old Dungannon-born, Armagh-reared fly-half said: "It took us 40 minutes to get into the game against them, but once we did we were able to take them on.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say they're vulnerable – they're strong in every aspect of what they're trying to do – but if you look to carry hard against them and try to build momentum you can make progress.

"The problem is that if they get a sniff at breakdowns they'll fire guys in to compete. That's something they do quite well, because they've a very good back row there.

"But they're there to play against and there are opportunities to run against them.

"You have to play it that way, though, because they're very good at squeezing teams and looking to get results that way. Putting pressure on the opposition is one of the things they do best."

Steenson sees the fact that Leicester's two worst-ever defeats in the Heineken Cup have been inflicted by Ulster as being significant.

"Good omens," he reasoned. "The last time Ulster met them (in the Heineken Cup) showed that if you are prepared to actually play against them, put pressure on them and attack them, it works."

In terms of his own situation, Steenson is looking forward to a second-successive season of Heineken Cup rugby with the Chiefs, who are grouped with Toulon, the holders, and THE PRO12 pair Glasgow and Cardiff in Pool 2.

"Being in the Heineken Cup again is massive for the club. It's a great experience," he enthused, clearly not having been put off by home and away defeats by Leinster and Clermont – offset by a home-and-away double over Scarlets – last season.

"We start at home against Cardiff on Sunday and Tom James and Ceri Sweeney were both there last year so hopefully those two can give us a bit of insight," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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