Leicester Tigers are historically the most successful English rugby union side in history. They have lots of legends of the past, including the likes of the Rory Underwood, Martin Corry, Martin Johnson, Austin Healey, Neil Back and Geordan Murphy, to name but a few. But in the last season and in this, there has been none of that sort of quality on show, and it just seems that Tigers have taken a step back.
Realistically, this can all be traced back to when long-serving Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill (another club legend) was sacked following a poor run of results, and Aaron Mauger, who had been the head coach under Cockerill, was given the top job temporarily. I like Aaron Mauger and I thought he did a good job with what he had, but he was overlooked for the permanent job for Matt O’Connor, which was a really poor decision from the board, because he came in, tried to implement his style of play (which seemed to be exactly the opposite of what Tigers fans were used to seeing), and Tigers went from stepping backwards to full-on sliding backwards. It really wasn’t good to watch, and some really bad results came from that new style. Last season, they finished outside the top 4 for the first time since the 2003-2004 season, and for Leicester this was a disaster. This season, with Matt O’Connor in charge still, they began at Sandy Park, facing last season’s runners-up Exeter Chiefs, who on their day are absolutely relentless. It was always going to be a tough ask for Tigers to win that game, but I speak for every Tigers fan I think when I say that there’s losing and then there’s losing. Tigers were absolutely humiliated. Poor tackling, poor passing, no sense of game plan….really not good. It came as no surprise to me when, two days after that game, it was announced that Matt O’Connor had left the club.
Then came the era of Geordan Murphy as interim head coach, which is where we are at now. They began with a home game against Newcastle, which proved two key things. The first is that Murphy has taken the shackles off and allowed the attack to play freely and score at will, which was evident and which proved fruitful. However, it also proved that the Tigers’ defence is hopeless at the best of times. Someone needs to get hold of it and give it a huge shake-up, because it is simply costing Leicester vital points at the moment. They still beat the Falcons though, so the first win was on the board, which was important. Then they travelled to the Ricoh Arena to take on Wasps, taking their shaky defence to face the next most shakiest, leakiest defence in the league. It was set up to be a very high-scoring game, and it proved to be exactly that. Both sides made errors, and both sides had good moments, but it was Wasps who came out on top.
Against Worcester Warriors this weekend just gone, arguably the worst team in the league on current performances, and most people’s favourite to be relegated at the end of the campaign, it was even worse than before. Worcester were on the front foot at Welford Road from the word “go”, and they were marshalled superbly by fly-half Duncan Weir, with everything good seeming to involve him in some way. But the Tigers players really did not help themselves, and the booing that came from the home faithful with around half an hour gone said it all. Their were missed tackles, there was no sense of urgency to get the ball forward, and Worcester were exceptional, but they didn’t have to be to be brutally honest. The Tigers looked like small frightened cats every time the Warriors came anywhere near them.
The second half was better, with George Ford, who is probably the only player who can hold his head up high as having played really well so far for Tigers this season, leading the charge through to score and help set up the tries to get Tigers to 37-37, but then Worcester found a way through with 19-year-old Ted Hill (who looks to be in the same group as Marcus Smith at Harlequins in that they are a real force and the future of the England national team) finding his way through following some quick and slick passing from the Warriors. Ultimately, that meant that Tigers were left with nothing but a losing bonus point from a match which I think everyone would have thought they would win.
In all honesty, with their next games being against Sale at home and then the difficult and fiercely contested East Midlands derby against Northampton Saints at Twickenham to come in their next two games, they need to now start working on that defence more than ever. Sale at home should be a winnable game; Saints will be trickier but on neutral turf so anyone’s game, but if Tigers don’t turn a corner from these results and some of these poor moments, they could slip further and further away from the top 4 and lose that respect from other teams of being one of the most successful teams in English rugby union history.