Consolidate - it’s not a word you see in headlines often because there are always incidents like Schalk Brits punching his clubmate Owen Farrell taking place somewhere in the oval ball world but while the eyes of rugby fans across the globe have been fixed on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, Leicester Tigers have been insuring they will have a squad in place to attempt to defend their Aviva Premiership crown.
Leicester are one of only two sides to have successfully defended a league title, the last time being in 2009 and 2010. Wasps managed the feat for a remarkable three years from 2003 to 2005.
But Tigers will go into next season with key players like British and Irish Lion Manu Tuilagi in their side after the centre agreed a new long-term contract.
The 22-year-old centre was called “a world-class talent” by his director of rugby Richard Cockerill this week and is likely to be fighting it out for a place in the Lions Test side.
Tuilagi came to prominence after a starring role in Leicester’s 22-17 shock defeat of world champions South Africa in 2009.
Manu followed his five older brothers in playing for the Tigers, graduating from the club’s famed academy. Since breaking into the senior squad he has scored 19 tries in 62 appearances over three senior seasons. He has also earned 21 caps for England, crossing the line 10 times with the red rose on his chest.
Next year he will be joined by 26-year-old Samoa international prop Logovi’i Mulipola who also has committed his long term future to Leicester.
The prop has become a vital member of the squad making 40 appearances since his debut in January 2012, especially since the season ending injury to Marcos Ayerza this year, improving his scrummaging to add to his powerful ball carrying.
Mulipola is expected to add to his 10 Test caps during a four-team tournament in South Africa this summer.
Tigers have already confirmed new agreements with Mathew Tait, George Chuter, Sam Harrison, Graham Kitchener, Steve Mafi, Niall Morris, Geoff Parling, Julian Salvi, and Ben and Tom Youngs.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “We have a very strong core to the squad and a level of continuity is always important to us.”
The deal extensions of a dozen key players paints the picture of a healthy club, where players not shy of hard work can flourish in an environment which breads international players. However the key contract to be negotiated this summer, that of England international fly-half Toby Flood, is still to be finalised.
Flood, 27, has 57 caps for England and captained the side towards the end of the season including at Twickenham in the Aviva Premiership final.
The number ten, who joined Tigers from Newcastle Falcons in 2008 has played 97 games for Leicester, scoring 1168 points for the club and is the central focus of their attack. Despite the challenge of former IRB Junior World Player of the Year George Ford, who has left for Bath to chase more first team rugby, and the likes of Dan Dowden adding to the competition for the stand off role, Flood remains the first choice.
Two fly halves, Owen Williams from Scarlets and Ryan Lamb from Northampton Saints, are joining Leicester for the 2013/14 season but Flood’s often under rated ability to break the line and lead the backs remains vital to the club’s bid to break the French hold on the Heineken Cup next season.
Also joining the squad for pre-season at Oval Park will be London Welsh hooker Neil Briggs, Exeter Chiefs and Argentina winger Gonzalo Comacho, and London Irish flanker Jamie Gibson, and Perpignan duo prop Jerome Schuster and scrum-half David Melé.
In other news
Hooker Tom Youngs became the first of Leicester’s six British and Irish Lions to pull on the famous red jersey on Saturday when he came off the bench in the 43rd minute against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
The Aviva Premiership player of the season missed his first line out throw but settled down to put in a solid shift in the Lions 59-8 win over a Barbarians side which included out-going Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni. The Italian’s future is still uncertain with a move to Toulon gone cold however Leicester officially announced he would be leaving the club last week.
Leicester’s other Lions will get their chances on Wednesday when the touring side face their first Australian opposition in the form of Western Force in Perth.
Tuilagi will make his Lions debut in his less played position of inside centre to accommodate Brian O’Driscoll in the side.
He will be joined by prop Dan Cole and blind side flanker Tom Croft.
Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Ben Youngs all have to make do with a place on the replacements bench.
The unfortunate Ed Slater has missed his chance to proving he has what it takes at international level after being forced to withdraw from England’s tour of Argentina, which kicked off last night (Sunday) with a 42-21 victory over a South America XV, with a reoccurrence of the triceps injury which kept him out of the Aviva Premiership semi-final play off.
However team mate Niall Morris will join up with the Emerging Ireland squad to travel to the IRB Tblisi Cup in Georgia.
His eight tries in 25 appearances for Tigers this season, including a try in the Aviva Premiership final has earned him a shot at further honours for his country.