Inside the Tigers’ Den - Mauger’s magic starting to rub off
Friday night’s victory over Stade Francais in the European Champions Cup may just be remembered as the birth of something great.
It was the first time Leicester have scored four tries this season in a competitive match and the 33-20 scoreline was their biggest winning margin over Stade, the defending French Top 14 champions and a club they share a rich history with.
It’s not an original thought that there are shades of southern hemisphere attacking prowess coming through in the Tigers’ attacking play this season.
Some say New Zealand, an easy association to make considering the club have employed former All Black Aaron Mauger as their head coach, but there is still some way to go to reach those dizzying heights. But you can certainly see shades of the vintage Canterbury Crusaders coming through.
New head coach Mauger must be given all the credit. Not just because Leicester are playing like a club who can beat the best sides in the league and Europe, but because a lot of it is being achieved with a cast which looked bang average for much of the last two years.
There is just one significant addition in the backs in Peter Betham, who was signed to played on the wing but has spent most of his time at centre since joining the club in the summer, through need rather than design.
The point is Leicester’s burgeoning attacking Renaissance has seen Tigers’ players transformed from at times paint by numbers anonymous brutes to Leonardo da Vinci-esque masters.
Owen Williams was on track to be challenging for a World Cup squad place with Wales before he injured his anterior cruciate ligament. He now looks recovered and better than ever. This new Tigers attack puts a lot on onus on the first receiver to pick the right option with two or three men to choose from in attack off each designed phase. Williams is running the attack very well at the moment.
When he wasn’t first receiver on Friday Matt Smith was. Smith is sometimes underestimated as a mere clubman, a squad player, but the utility back, playing at inside centre, was superb all night and any player coming in who wants his shirt is going to have to be on their game. He crossed for Leicester’s second try of the game on Friday.
Mat Tait was a bright spark in a dark period for the club last season, often looking like the only man who could create something out of nothing. After almost leaving in the summer he has committed himself to the Tigers and looks even better in a team full of like minded players who have been let off the leash. A new England manager, whoever they will be after Stuart Lancaster stepped down last week, could do much worse than giving Tait a chance to add to his 38 international caps. Despite it being a position of real strength, on current form he is the best English full back in the league.
Leicester’s wingers this season are going to score tries. Vereniki Goneva had a disappointing World Cup with Fiji, never really finding spaces against the likes of Australia, Wales and England. However since he has returned to Welford Road he looks as if he could bamboozle his way out of a telephone box with half a dozen defenders in it. No one knows where he is going, sometimes even him. He crossed the whitewash against Stade on his way to making the most individual metres (131) out of anyone playing in Round One of the competition.
On the other wing Adam Thompstone is in the form of his life, and while he is going to have to fight off the challenge of some big names coming back from injury he is doing everything right to keep his jersey.
It’s a dangerous game to play but add in who is missing and things get really exiting. Jean de Villiers is expected within three weeks, Manu Tuilagi within a couple of month, maybe. Throw in Miles Benjamin, Gonzalo Camancho and Freddie Burns and suddenly you have world class competition all across the backline.
As well as improving existing players at the club Leicester have also made some canny signings and potentially the best of them made his debut on Friday.
Openside flanker Brendon O’Connor looks well on his way to becoming a fan favourite at Welford Road after just one game at the club. The classic kiwi number seven scored on his debut and set up another on Friday with an audacious turn over right on the edge of rugby legality.
The former Blues player in exactly what Leicester need in their current pack, and with a few more performances like that the English qualified O’Connor could soon catch the eye of the national selectors.
Tigers’ good business in the transfer market is not done yet. The club announced the signing of Australia international Matt Toomua this week, as reported in this column two weeks ago.
Earlier in the week they also confirmed Italian prop Matias Aguero had joined the club.
Toomua, 25, can play at fly-half or inside centre and was part of the Wallabies’ World Cup final squad, coming off the bench to win his 23rd cap. He will join Tigers next summer after one more Super Rugby season with the ACT Brumbies.
“I’m very excited to be joining the Tigers,” Toomua told Leicester’s official website.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to be a part of such a successful organisation with such a proud history.
“After meeting with Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger, I feel very fortunate to be able to further develop as a rugby player in such a great environment and hope to contribute to the club’s future success.
“I look forward to joining the club in 2016 and wish the team all the best for the current season.”
Tigers director of rugby Cockerill said: “It is no secret we have been looking to sign a top-class player to add to our back-line resources and Matt is certainly in that category.
“He is still a young man but has already achieved such a lot in Super Rugby and played extensively in Test rugby for the Wallabies.
“We look forward to his arrival in the summer and to seeing him work with our back line and with Aaron and the coaching team. I’m sure his arrival will excite supporters too because he will be a top-class addition to the squad.”
Leicester are back in European action on Saturday when they travel to Italian side Benetton Treviso, who were beaten 32-7 by Munster at the weekend.