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Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester unable to break down Saracens’ ‘wolf pack’

By Rob Byrne

Leicester Tigers winger Niki Goneva. Tiger Images EMN-140414-172104001
Leicester Tigers winger Niki Goneva. Tiger Images EMN-140414-172104001

There is no two ways about it Leicester Tigers are struggling this season. Now a lot teams would like to be having a bad season and still be in fifth place with a chance of making the play-offs and who knows maybe the Grand Final - but Leicester because of their rich history and dominance of the domestic game since it turned professional are held to a higher standard.

For them it’s simply not good enough.

On Saturday Tigers lost 22-6 to Saracens, the last remaining English team in the European Champions Cup, and despite a ferocious effort, particularly in the second half they just could not get over the line.

It has been the case far too often this season. Only London Welsh, who are on track to being the worst ever Aviva Premiership team having lost every single game this season, have scored fewer than Leicester’s 26 tries this season.

In recent years Leicester have earned their playoff places and particularly home semi-finals by mounting up the winning bonus points for scoring four tries in a match. This season they haven’t got just three so far.

One has to expect another will come in their next match against London Welsh at Welford Road and in truth most sides in the league would have buckled under the pressure Tigers put on Saracens.

In the second half they forced Saracens to make tackle after tackle, in fact the London side made 165 tackles, missing 20, compared to Tigers 78.

But this tells a story in itself. Leicester’s attack was blunt and unimaginative allowing the blanket of black shirted Sarries players to hunt in the famous wolf pack style, chopping down the Leicester runners.

In contrast when the European semi-finalists attacked they went wide, using the blistering pace of Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles to stretch Leicester to breaking point.

However the first try came from a bit of old fashioned brute strength, and there are few stronger in the English game than big number eight Billy Vunipola, who powered over just before the break to put his side in front after Tigers fly-half Freddie Burns had kicked the visitors ahead with a pair of penalties.

Tom Youngs had been yellow carded just before the try for a cynical tackle off the ball which prevented Ashton running a support line which could well have seen him go under the sticks. The referee did not award a penalty try but Leicester were punished on the board with the England hooker off the field.

In a ten minute spell after the start of the second half Saracens crossed the line twice, going wide after Leicester had been forced to temporarily sacrifice a winger for a hooker replacement.

First Argentine centre Marcello Bosch went over before Wyles crossed, although by that point Leicester were back to their full compliment.

Against a side as well organised and stingy in defence as Saracens the game was effectively over, however Leicester never gave up, looking for a way through the wall of defenders but when there were glimmers of chances they could not capitalise on them. The most obvious case being when last season’s top try scorer Niki Goneva failed to realise the line was in reach when diving forwards, instead the Fijian back flung the ball back to no-one.

Leicester’s no nonsense director of rugby Richard Cockerill was in no doubt why his side lost - they weren’t good enough was his assessment. He said: “You have to be accurate. If you make errors and give Saracens field position, they are good enough to punish you.

“We put pressure on ourselves at times but they took their tries very well. They are a good side and they do what they do very well.

“They work exceptionally hard in defence and we found them very hard to break down.

“You can’t let the key moments get away from you because if you do you lose, and that’s what happened today.

“We play London Welsh at home, we play Northampton at home and we go to Wasps, so everything is in our own hands. The challenge is for us to improve on what we did today. There is plenty of fight in us. We just need to be a bit smarter.”

Behind the scenes events are in action as Leicester already look to rebuild for next season. For the first time since the introduction of the rule Tigers are understood to be considering and having discussions with players about making marquee signings. The current league salary cap allows for club’s to make two signings outside the £5.1m budget the clubs have to work within next season.

Following the Rugby World Cup, which concludes in October, there is expected to be an exodus of Southern hemisphere star players looking to earn a potential £500,000 a year pay day. Who that could be and whether that will be at Welford Road is still to be seen. Perhaps new head coach Aaron Mauger, a former All Black and of course Tiger, will bring a couple of big name players from his current side, Super 15 outfit the Canterbury Crusaders.

They have certainly got a few, perhaps their two biggest names are two men who will do down as two of the greatest players in the history of the game, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. Sadly for Tigers fans there is no suggestion either All Black is on their way but Mauger is bringing another coach with him, replacing current defence coach Phil Blake with Scott Hansen.

Australian Blake has only been in the job for a year and has improved vastly since the start of the season, allowing them to win tight games despite not being able to cross the line themselves.

Another ex-Tiger is coming back into the fold as team manager. Centre Matt Cornwell will return to the club for a third spell in the summer, taking over from Jo Hollis as team manager.


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