For Leicester Tigers fans, this is strange. 2017 was an Annus horribilis for the most successful of Premiership clubs; it was a year that saw two Head Coaches depart the club and a growing majority of Tigers fans believing their replacement should go too. The East Midlands side scraped into the Premiership semi-finals for the 13th successive season, but were never contenders for the title. Consistent failings away from home plagued two unsuccessful European campaigns.
Why are Leicester Tigers struggling?
On paper, Leicester boast one of the stronger squads in the Aviva Premiership. Their first-choice side includes as many as six England squad members, including Eddie Jones’ preferred halfback pairing. There are internationals from nine other countries, with a pair of Argentinians rumoured to be arriving soon. Matt O’Connor is an experienced Head Coach familiar with the club who won the Pro12 with Leinster. Welford Road is the second largest Premiership ground and the club has sufficient financial clout to compete with most clubs in Europe for player signings.
And yet, Tigers sit ninth in the Premiership, nine points behind Gloucester in fourth and a remarkable 22 points in arrears of runaway leaders Exeter. Back-to-back defeats to Munster have plunged them to fourth in their Champions Cup pool. Where are things going wrong?
No Grunt Up-Front
The main issue with Leicester this season has been their inability to win collisions, both on attack and defense. To be successful in the Premiership gainline success is crucial, and Exeter and Saracens’ success shows this; both possess packs with many destructive runners and tacklers. Gloucester’s turn around has been built around bigger ball carriers like Ruan Ackermann and Ed Slater. Bath are at their best when equipped with Francois Louw, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Underhill, as all excel at making dominant tackles and knocking opponents backwards.
Leicester are severely lacking in these sort of players, with only Ellis Genge a truly powerful option as a runner. Sione Kalamafoni was brought in to aid in this area but he is more a workmanlike six than a bludgeoning eight. Valentino Mapapalangi has great potential but is inconsistent and searches for the offload too often, entering the contact area too high. Mike Williams is erratic; Luke Hamilton is willing but physically limited. Captain Tom Youngs’ most dynamic days are behind him and he can no longer be relied upon to make metres consistently. Tatafu Polota-Nau looks an excellent recruit to help in this regard (with a strong showing against Exeter). However, Leicester still need more.
The Tigers’ biggest problem are their ineffective second rowers. None of Dom Barrow, Mike Fitzgerald or Graham Kitchener get over the gainline with any semblance of regularity, and that hugely hampers any pack. There is a striking disparity in tackling strength between Leicester’s locks and those of teams above them. Leicester need a second-row talisman in the mould of a Lawes or Launchbury. Will Spencer is being heavily linked to the club and would be a good signing: the big Worcester man is highly-rated and is better than any of the current locks as a tackler and ball carrier. But he will not arrive until next season.
In terms of a more immediate fix, a top-class forwards coach is needed to aid the struggling O’Connor (the position has been vacant since Richard Blaze left in September.) Boris Stankovich has been doing an exceptional job with the scrum, but another coach is needed. Paul O’Connell is understood to have turned the role down. Priority number one for the New Year at Leicester has to be filling this position.
Failure to convert opportunities into tries
Two: the number of teams in the Aviva Premiership to have scored four tries only once in a game this season. Bottom-dwellers London Irish are one of those teams; Leicester are the other. This statistic should horrify Tigers fans. This is of course a backline with England’s starting nine and ten and one of the better centre pairings in Europe, not to mention Jonny May and Telusa Veainu in the wider channels. Such potency should not reap such scarce rewards.
Leicester are averaging two and a half tries per game this year, having scored thirty tries in their twelve games thus far. This is the same amount as Bath have scored, though the West Country men have five try bonus points compared to Leicester’s one.
Leicester are not clinical enough
With the new ruck laws, there is a certain inevitability that tries will be conceded in the Premiership this year. Ball retention is easier for attacking sides, which means defences are forced to make more tackles. Longer periods of phase play are emblematic of these changes and have become more commonplace. Defences are largely unable to withstand these further rigours, and thus more tries are being scored by all teams.
The best Premiership teams score more than anyone else. The top three teams in the league are the top three try-scorers: Wasps are masters at scoring from anywhere; Saracens score a lot off first-phase ball behind their strong set-piece; Exeter are ridiculously clinical and patient in both the backs and forwards. These teams do not just take what tired defences eventually give them.
Leicester have particularly struggled to convert opportunities in their opponents’ 22. Too many lineouts have gone awry, particularly at crucial moments late in games. The aforementioned struggles with ball-carrying in the forwards means Leicester often can’t power over opponents, and thus patience is needed to reset and reload if initial efforts are repelled. There has been a degree of impatience about much of the Tigers’ play this year, and this needs to be resolved if the they are to be more successful in the second half of the season. It is in these areas that Ben Youngs and George Ford need to show why they are England’s chosen halves, controlling affairs and not panicking.
Lack of Leaders
The lack of natural leaders in the squad hinders matters. Tom Youngs is club captain, but not a naturally talkative leader who can get the squad going or influence the referee. George Ford has captained in his absence, as has Youngs’ brother Ben, but neither of them strike as particularly comfortable in the role. Leicester’s most natural and vocal leader might be Dom Barrow, but he has had injury troubles and is inexperienced and inconsistent, and thus not an automatic pick in the second row. More leadership needs to be shown by senior members of the squad to help on-field efforts.
The best leaders are often one-club men, and at Tigers the production line has dried up. Leicester’s academy once produced England international after England international, but very few that have come through the system in recent years have made it into the first team. Of the current crop emerging, only Will Evans has really shown signs of potential international quality. There has been much greater player turnover in recent years, and as such, leaders have become scarce in the squad.
All teams suffer injuries and they are no excuse, but Leicester have been particularly handicapped this season. Currently on the sidelines are Ellis Genge and Telusa Veainu, equally important in different ways for their game breaking abilities. Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua’s respective injuries means they haven’t hit their stride as a partnership yet. Back-rower and Ireland international Dominic Ryan is still out with concussion issues. Many key squad members have spent time on the the treatment table
It is hard for a team to produce consistently with so many injuries. Continuity is needed. At clubs like Saracens and Exeter, much of the squad has been at the club for several seasons, all under the same Head Coach. This means integrating new signings or those from the academy is much easier; the identity of the club and style of play more defined.
Is Matt O’Connor the right man?
Ultimately, the buck stops with the Head Coach. Many of Leicester’s problems seem to stem from a lack of leadership at the top level. O’Connor cuts a more distant figure than most Premiership Head Coaches. O’Connor chops and changes too much, particularly in the back row. He has failed to instill a clear style of play and get the best out of the talented squad thus far. His future must be questioned for fear of further deterioration.
It was an odd appointment at the time; after Richard Cockerill was fired, Aaron Mauger took the reins and was relatively impressive, winning the Anglo-Welsh Cup. Mauger was replaced in March of last year after just three months in charge, beating rivals Northampton in his final game. Peculiarly, it is understood that O’Connor contacted the club’s board to offer his services rather than vice versa.
Were Leicester too hasty in moving on from Mauger, or even Cockerill before him? More and more Tigers fans believe they were, and that another change should be made with Leicester Tigers struggling. Geordan Murphy and Brett Deacon have been involved for several season in back room roles, taking charge in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. Perhaps using them as interims to replace O’Connor could spark a change in fortunes. Leicester’s top-four goal is unlikely, but they can still make the top six and secure Champions Cup qualification. This is something they must achieve, and under O’Connor it looks unlikely at this time.
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