Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester look to solve prop crisis
Leicester have got a bit of a loose head crisis on their hands. On Saturday the vital position was filled by Fraser Balmain, who is used to playing on the other side of the scrum.
Balmain has regularly been selected to train with England but has yet to be capped, however the prop who turns 24 next week looks destined to represent his country at senior level at some point. However from Saturday’s evidence it’s not going to be at loose head.
Tigers’ scrum got stuffed by Exeter at Sandy Park in their 19-6 defeat, however to be fair to the tight five it was not the only thing which contributed to their loss.
So comprehensive was the domination from Exeter in the scrum that The Times newspaper named all three off the Chiefs’ front row in their team of the week.
Ironically loose head prop is one of the club’s strongest positions with everyone fit, with two world class options to pick from.
Argentine Marcos Ayerza was named in the Rugby World Cup team of the tournament in that position - meaning in theory he is the best in the world in that position. Few would argue against that.
However he picked up a hamstring strain in training before the third place play-off at the world cup and has not played since.
Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said Ayerza will be fit for Friday night’s massive game with French Top 14 champions Stade Francais.
They had better hope he is and hope he is up for a long stint
Tigers’ second world class option at loose head is Samoan Logo’vi Mulipola but he too has been struggling with a few niggling injuries this season and this week the club confirmed he would be rested for four weeks to let his knee injury heal.
The loose head prop out of the picture at the moment is Italian Michele Rizzo who will miss the season with an ACL knee injury.
However, the unconfirmed rumours are that Leicester will sign fellow Italian international Matias Aguero to fill the void.
The 34 year-old was born in Argentina but moved to Italy as a child where he played club rugby for Aironi. Aguero has played 40 internationals for the Azzurri over ten years, the last coming against Romania in the Rugby World Cup. The prop has plenty of Aviva Premiership experience having played for Saracens between 2008-10 and looks to be set for a return having been spotted in Leicester his week.
Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson scored all 19 points for the hosts on Saturday as they beat Tigers for the first time in the Premiership, confirming their place as top four contenders.
However the scoreline is more one sided than the game was.
Leicester had their chances, they just failed to take them.
The most obvious was Adam Thompstones’ no try. If the winger had successfully grounded the ball it would have been a contender for try of the season.
Ben Youngs, back for the first time after picking up an injury with England at the World Cup, broke down the blindside from a catch and drive lineout, drew in two players and then released Thompstone who is in the form of his life. The winger left James Short for dead with an in-to-out step inside the five metre line and then stepped the full back, however as he reached out to touch the ball down Short got back to get his legs under the ball and the Leicester man knocked on. Failure to score saw Tigers completely lose the momentum they had built.
There were numerous other errors throughout the game which let Chiefs off the hook.
Owen Williams kicked for the corner and over-cooked it, finding the deadball area instead and losing 45 yards and handing over the ball to Exeter in the process.
When he did find touch with a nice kick to the corner in the second half the lineout faltered and Exeter turned the ball over to relieve the pressure.
Leicester are certainly trying to play a more attacking game under new head coach Aaron Mauger but they are being slightly hampered in doing so by their lack of centre options.
On Saturday they started 35-year-old Seremaia Bai and utility back Matt Smith. Both are decent players, Bai is a former Fiji international and Smith is a great club servant, but they do not offer much of an attacking threat. Neither man has a step to beat a player or the sheer size to get over the line, meaning all they can really do is ship the ball on to their more attacking players outside them.
The introduction of Jean de Villiers and return of Manu Tuilagi can not come soon enough if Leicester are going to win the big games which matter this season.
The one real bright spot of the loss for Leicester was the outstanding performance of new Tongan back Telusa Veainu.
Playing in the less familiar role of fullback the international made the most metres and beat more defenders than anyone else in the Premiership last weekend.
He raced 153 metre, beating eight defenders in the process, four of those coming in one spell-binding break in the opening moments of the game.
Veainu was so impressive with ball in hand Exeter had to change their game plan to counteract his influence, coming out in the second half with a much better chasing game to shut down his space early.
For a late addition to the squad he could end up being a key component to the backline this season.
While Leicester’s winning start to the season came to end they will not be too disappointed with how things stand, sitting in fourth, as attention turns to Europe and Stade Francais.
The defending French Top 14 champions have been struggling this season, languishing in 11th place, however on Sunday they beat league leaders and last season’s beaten Champions Cup finalists Clermont 14-9.
In contrast Tigers sit in fourth place in the league having rested players for their assault on the Champions Cup, a competition they have under performed in recent season, albeit having been drawn in tough groups.