East­mond sees red as rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle looms for once-mighty Le­ices­ter

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Gallagher Premiership - By Tom Cary at Ash­ton Gate

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

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