Eastmond sees red as relegation battle looms for once-mighty Leicester
Could the unthinkable happen this season? Could England’s biggest club find themselves relegated from the Premiership? The very suggestion seems absurd. But Leicester Tigers fans will be looking anxiously over their shoulders after their sixth defeat in a row in all competitions.
They were not helped here by a red card for Kyle Eastmond after 25 minutes. But the truth is Leicester looked off the pace even before then, coughing up ball, falling off tackles, devoid of a discernible game plan.
No one came out of it well. Their England contingent – Manu Tuilagi aside – looked particularly sluggish. England speedster Jonny May was actually skinned on the outside by Luke Morahan for Bristol’s third try of the afternoon.
Alarm bells should be ringing. Leicester’s last win came at Northampton way back on Oct 6, and if Geordan Murphy does not get a grip of things soon they can look forward to being part of this season’s relegation dogfight at least.
“I didn’t until today,” Leicester’s interim head coach replied when asked whether he felt his team could get sucked into that.
In hindsight, the sacking of Matt O’Connor after just one game this season looks none too clever.
The truth is, there is no clear candidate for the drop this year. Bristol are the promoted team, but incredibly they leapfrogged Tigers, who had started the day sixth, with this bonus-point win.
It took them less than two minutes to notch their first try yesterday – and, maddeningly for Murphy, it came off first-phase ball, Ian Madigan passing inside to Alapati Leiua, who had come off his wing, straight from a line-out. Former Leicester hooker Harry Thacker, fresh from his hat-trick of tries at Wasps the previous weekend, was in support.
After a Madigan penalty put Bristol 10-0 up, the home team threatened to undo their good start, getting over-am- bitious, as they have on many occasions this season, and giving away cheap possession. Tuilagi peeled off the side of a ruck to reduce Leicester’s arrears from 22 metres out, Leiua missing the key tackle.
Tuilagi was one Leicester player largely exempt from criticism yesterday. But the same could not be said for his centre partner Eastmond, who went in high on Madigan after 25 minutes, giving referee Wayne Barnes little choice but to send him off for “direct contact to the chin and head with force”.
The only questionable thing was why, if the contact was forceful, Madigan stayed on to slot the ensuing penalty rather than go off for a head injury assessment. Either way, it was the key of the match, with the score just 10-7 at that point.
“It’s huge in a game like that,” said Murphy, although he did not dispute it. “Barnesy is one of the best referees around,” he added. “He deemed it a high tackle. That’s enough for me. But I want to see it applied across the board now.”
Murphy was more upset by Leicester’s woeful defensive performance and inability to retain possession. They had chances. Bristol were reduced to 14 men themselves for 10 minutes, after John Afoa was shown yellow for a body-check on Jonny May.
But Murphy’s men never recovered from the body blow of Eastmond’s sending-off. Thacker scored his second of the game – and his fifth in the space of about an hour of rugby – before halftime.
And again, it came from a basic Tigers error. Steven Luatua was allowed to get back on his feet after he was tackled and, as the Leicester players
looked at each other, he fed Thacker for the score.
Barnes went upstairs but the television match official concluded that Luatua had not been held when on the floor.
The second half made for painful viewing for Leicester fans. First Morahan side-stepped May before burning off the England wing.
Then scrum-half Harry Randall secured the bonus point with a brilliant solo effort, taking a quick penalty just inside Leicester’s half and evading multiple challenges before taking Jonah Holmes over the line with him.
It was Bristol’s biggest win in the Premiership since 2000, when they won 57-19 at Bedford. It could have been more.
Are Leicester too big to go down, Bristol head coach Pat Lam was asked? “No one’s too big to go down,” he replied with a glint in his eye.
“I’m just delighted with our performance. Extremely pleased and proud of the guys.”
It could well get worse for Leicester before it gets better. They are away at Racing 92 next Sunday in the first of a European Champions Cup doubleheader against the Parisian heavyweights.
“Obviously [this result] is really disappointing,” Murphy reflected when asked whether relegation could actually be a factor. “I think that will boost Bristol’s chances of staying up. But look, we’ve got a great side.
“We’ve got some massive games and it’s not even halfway through the season yet. So I don’t think that [relegation] is really a massive factor for us. After a bad performance like that today you can think, ‘Well, if we play that badly every week that will be a factor.’ But I’d expect us to perform better than that down the line.”
They will need to.
Scores 5-0 Thacker try; 7-0 Madigan con; 10-0 Madigan pen; 10-5 Tuilagi try; 10-7 Ford con; 13-7 Madigan pen; 13-10 Ford pen; 16-10 Madigan pen; 21-10 Thacker try; 26-10 Morahan try; 28-10 Madigan con; 33-10 Randall try; 35-10 Madigan con; 38-10 Madigan pen; 41-10 Madigan pen Bristol C Piutau; L Morahan, W Hurrell (P O’Conor 60), S Piutau (C Sheedy 70), A Leiua; I Madigan, H Randall (A Uren 53); Y Thomas (J Woolmore 70), H Thacker, J Afoa (L Thiede 63), J Joyce (E Holmes 56), A Muldowney, S Luatua, G Smith (D Thomas 56), J Crane (S Malton 70). Leicester J Holmes; A Thompstone, M Tuilagi (M Smith 74), K Eastmond, J May; G Ford (M Toomua 59), B Youngs (B White 70); E Genge (F Gigena), J Kerr (T Polota-Nau 51), D Cole (G Cortes 53), W Spencer, G Kitchener (H Wells 41), M Williams (M Fitzgerald 54), B O’Connor, S Kalamafoni. Red card Eastmond. Referee W Barnes
Mauled: Bristol’s Harry Thacker dives over for his and his side’s second try, right, as they capitalise on Kyle Eastmond’s sending off, left; and Manu Tuilagi, George Ford and Ben Youngs look on disconsolately from the bench at Ashton Gate as their side head towards a damaging defeat, below