Inside the Tigers’ Den - Tuilagi, Youngs, Slater and Burns commit their futures
If coming back from 17-0 down for the biggest come back in the club’s history wasn’t good enough the Leicester Tigers have just announced a quartet of signings which should guarantee the club’s position at the top table of Europe for the foreseeable future.
On a magic Monday morning the news started to filter through.
First fly-half Freddie Burns, 25, was announced as having signed a new contract to extend his time at Welford Road.
Burns has been on the outside of the international scene for the last year, unable to add to his five England caps, but he looks custom made to fit into the Tigers’ new attacking style of the play.
Burns came out of pre-season firing all guns blazing this summer as the club’s first choice fly-half but a broken jaw has seen him out of action for the last couple of months.
He is now nearing a return and will be competing for the number ten shirt with Wales’ up-and-coming fly half talent Owen Williams.
Burns, who joined Leicester in 2014 has only made 21 appearances for the club but having made 83 appearances for Gloucester he has great experience for a player of his age and his best years are still ahead of him.
Burns said: “When I first came to Tigers last summer, I always thought of it as a long-term move for me, not a short-term fix, and I’m very happy to have agreed a new contract to stay.
“Leicester is a great club with a lot of history and hopefully this group of players can add some history of their own.”
Just as fans took to Twitter to rejoice at his signing the next announcement landed. Club captain Ed Slater will continue to play for the club he has supported since he was a boy.
At 27 Slater is at the peak of his physical powers having suffered injury hell in the last 18 months which saw him damage in anterior crucriate ligament while on England duty, he is now back and challenging for a place in the national squad for the Six Nations once again.
Slater said: “First and foremost I love playing for Leicester Tigers and for as long as the club want me, I want to stay. The club has been very good to me, it has given me a great opportunity to play my rugby here and I am enjoying my rugby here.
“It’s a great club, we have a very good group of players, having Aaron Mauger here has added something as well and all those things combined made it a very easy decision to make to stay.”
Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill was full of praise. He said: “Ed has made a massive contribution over the last six seasons as a Leicester Tigers player. He is the club captain because he is an outstanding player and an important member of the first-team squad both on and off the field.
“Ed is among the English qualified players and leaders at the heart of the squad, which is extremely important to the culture of the club.”
With no suggestion that such good news was coming this morning Leicester fans were beaming around the country. But things were about to get better. News flash. Scrum half Ben Youngs, 26, has also signed a new contract to extend his time at the club.
Youngs, who has 54 international caps and is unbelievably in his 10th season of first-team rugby at the club, was reportedly on the radar of a number of Northern hemisphere clubs but for Youngs it’s very much family affair.
“The fact my dad was a Leicester Tigers player and that I can play alongside my brother [Tom Youngs] in the Tigers team here each week is very important to me,” explained Youngs.
“I’ve been at the club for a long time and it’s a great experience to be involved at a club with that strong family connection.
“We’ve had a good start to the season and it’s good to see players like Matt Toomua coming in for next season as well as the guys who are agreeing new contracts from the current squad.”
Cockerill said: “Ben led the team as captain for much of last season and he is an integral part of the leadership group in the playing squad. I’m delighted that he has agreed a new contract here.
“He is a young man with masses of experience at the highest levels of the game with Tigers, England and the Lions, and he clearly believes we have a very strong squad at the club.”
Despite the joy of re-signing three key players the fans were was still dying for news on one man whose future has been more speculated about than just about any other rugby player perhaps in the history of the British game - Manu Tuilagi.
Just before lunch Magic Monday was complete with confirmation that the big one, both literally and figuratively, Tuilgi has signed.
Tuilagi has played just 26 Tests, much fewer than he should have because of injury and off-field discipline problems, but at 24 he should be reaching his peak as his player in the next couple of years and we have already seen him terrorise the best defences in the world.
At his rampaging best he is one of the most unstoppable forces in world rugby and that is why a number of clubs have reportedly been willing to offer him contracts around £500,000 a year.
With his injury history, which includes a current 14 month lay-off with a groin problem, a half a million pound a year investment is some gamble but one with a potentially huge pay-off.
Leicester never seemed in doubt they were willing to make that gamble, It was just a case of what Manu wanted.
Cockerill said: “Manu has had very close connections to the club from a very young age and he is a big part of the Tigers family. The club has been very good to him and he has shown huge loyalty to the club in return in wanting to stay here.
“This is where he is at home, the supporters love him and we’re looking forward to getting him back out on the pitch in the near future.
“Manu is in the prime of his rugby life at 24, he has very good players and a good coaching team around him here and he is very keen to play his part in the squad.”
Tuilagi said: “The Tigers has been a big part of my life and following my brothers into the team here was a very proud moment for me.
“The club always wants to be successful, the players and coaches set very high standards and we are always looking to improve. It is a great club and I’m very settled here. The club and the supporters have been very good to me.
“The way the team has been playing this season is very exciting with Aaron Mauger as head coach and that is another reason I’m looking forward to getting back out on the pitch in Tigers colours.”
That might not be too long either as Tuilagi was spotted running in the opposition team as Tigers trained at Rugby School last week in preparation for their game with Worcester.
The suggestion is Tuilagi may be back for the Newcastle Falcons game at Welford Road on Boxing Day, as if Tigers fans haven’t had enough presents already of late.
The significance of all three signings should not be underestimated. Slater and Youngs are two of the key leaders in the team and fly-halves also have to be natural leaders by the nature of their position.
So what they have done is confirm the future of three leaders and one truly world class player in Tuilagi.
If Leicester can keep everyone fit they will have a truly stunning back line to pick from after Christmas and into next season.
Most week’s Saturday’s record tying comeback would be enough to be headline news.
The only other 17 point deficit reverse by Tigers was at London Irish on October 16, 1999.
Leicester were quite simply in a mess in the first half of the game, making errors in the tough conditions and they quickly found themselves 17-0 down after tries from Wynard Olivier and Matt Cox.
Tom Youngs came on for Leicester after 22 minutes and brought some fire to Tigers’ play.
Just before the break Graham Kitchener scored a superb try showing off his power and agility against his old side to get Leicester back into the match.
Perhaps the key moment of the game came just two minutes into the second half when Irish lock Donncha O’Callaghan was shown a second yellow card of the game resulting in him getting the first red card of his glorious career.
Worcester then went temporally down to 13 for ten minutes when Gareth Milasinovich was shown yellow and that left just too much room for Leicester’s sharp backs with the deadliest of them all Telusa Veainu scoring his fifth try for the club in another 150 metre gained performance.
Warriors’ Tom Heathcote and Tigers’ Owen Williams traded penalties before Leicester were over the line again. This time referee Wayne Barnes gave a penalty try but the visitors to Sixways looked to be over the line anyway. Tellingly Worcester were given another yellow, this time for earlier try scorer Cox, as they scrambled to try and stop the Tigers’ power game.
In the final minute of the game another powerful drive from a Tigers maul saw Lachlan McCaffrey given an armchair ride over the line for the bonus point try and denied Worcester a losing bonus point. It was cruel on the homeside after a sterling effort, but remarkable by Leicester considering the hole they were in after the opening quarter.
Taking the shine off the win was the news that Mike Williams picked up a suspected broken arm during the game. The only good news is lock and flanker are areas Leicester have plenty of depth in.
Tigers will need to sharpen up if they are to get something from their visit to Thomond Park on Saturday in the European Champions Cup. However the good news is Munster are looking fallible at the moment and having lost their last two games, including a 22-6 defeat to the less than impressive Newport Gwent Dragons on Sunday.