It’s not the type of season a Leicester Tiger fan is accustomed to, but there is light at the end of the tunnel following a defiant defeat at Wasps.
Three Different Coaches
Three different head coaches, a record home defeat in Europe and two catastrophic losses to nil were not part of Leicester Tiger’s pre-season plan. But that is the hand they were dealt and 2016/17 is widely accepted as Leicester Tigers worst season since the millennium.
Current head coach Matt O’Connor admitted “there were things and dynamics this year that made it difficult”. One of those dynamics will have been the manager merry-go-round he was part of, but the lack of continuity at the top was not the only hurdle Tigers failed to negotiate.
Star Players Not Performing
Star players have not always stepped up – Ben Youngs has not hit the form that he shows in an England shirt whilst foreign imports JP Pietersen and Matt Toomua have underwhelmed. Injuries have played their part and Leicester will hope they can atone next year for their absences.
Leicester Tigers appear to be stuck in limbo: how do they thrive rather than just survive? They are now the hunters rather than the hunted with Wasps, Saracens and Exeter leading the way.
Any Cause for Optimism?
Ironically Leicester started the season in impressive fashion. A trip to Gloucester on the first Friday night of the season had fans wondering at 31-7 adrift early in the second-half. But Leicester scored 31-unanswered points with Sam Harrison converting his own try in the last minute to seal victory.
It spoke volumes about the culture at Tigers that they fought back in such a hostile environment and was, falsely, viewed as a statement of intent for the season ahead. They went on to win seven of their first ten games and remained firmly in the play-off picture.
The biggest stride forward the club made this season was ironically off the pitch. In February it was announced England fly-half George Ford would return to the club after four years away with Bath.
Above anything else, the signing of Ford, who made his intentions to leave the Rec clear, was proof that Leicester Tigers can still attract a player of his stock. Northampton, Gloucester and Sale Sharks all tabled offers – the latter of which was considerably more than Leicester Tigers offered – but Ford is believed to have chosen a return for “rugby reasons.”
George Ford is looking forward to working with Matt O'Connor at Leicester Tigers
The debate among fans is whether Ford is an upgrade on Freddie Burns who moves the other way as part of the deal. Coupled with the £500,000 transfer fee Leicester Tigers have parted with, Ford is arriving with big expectations.
Burns has ended the season in fine form and confessed to feeling “bitter” about the way Leicester went about their business. On paper it looks a fantastic deal, but with Ford’s England commitments and other aspects of his game open to question, it remains to be seen whether it was a move worth seeking for both parties.
A 16-12 defeat to Saracens at Welford Road on 2nd January had the Leicester hierarchy yearning for change. Cockerill’s eight-year coaching association with the club was ended despite him claiming he was still the right man to take the club forward.
He had, in less than five months, overseen losses to Saracens, Wasps and Exeter causing the board to question whether Leicester Tigers remained the force of old. The conclusion they arrived at was clearly not and Cockerill paid the price.
The warning signs had been present for several years – two semi-final mauling’s at Saracens and Bath in consecutive years had damaged Leicester Tiger’s reputation and they no longer possess the aura of years gone by.
Cockerill’s naivety and refusal to accept that Leicester needed a period of transition looks to have proved his undoing.
As a result the club, despite running Wasps close, are further away from the top now than they have ever been in the professional era. The encouraging thing for the club is that their infrastructure runs so deep, providing they put the right beams in place, the house that once reigned over England can be rebuilt sooner rather than later.
A Mauger Mistake?
If the player’s reaction after the 36-31 victory at Franklins Gardens is anything to go by you might suggest so. Mauger was appointed interim head coach following Cockerill’s departure.
He was only in the roll for a little over two months but the players took to him, both as a man and a coach. Mauger oversaw six wins in his last seven games – including the capture of the LV Cup – and was said to be “devastated” when the club appointed O’Connor as head coach.
What a send off!
The Australian lost his first game in charge against Bath which put their top four position in jeopardy. But subsequent wins over Newcastle, Sale and Worcester saw them advance to the post season for a 13th straight season.
Their season ended one game early for a fourth straight year, but in defeat Leicester Tigers can claim the slightest of victories. They looked to have turned the corner and O’Connor spoke defiantly after the 21-20 defeat to Wasps.
“There’s a hell of a lot of belief. But the one thing we’ve learned off the back of this season is perspective and that is it’s a game of footie and we’ll hold our hands up and we’ll be better moving forward.”