Even if you have only half-watched the English Premiership this season, you can’t fail to have noticed that Leicester Tigers have looked hugely improved on the pitch. Ever since former head coach Aaron Mauger left the club, they have looked a shadow of themselves, constantly struggling at the foot of the table, and would have likely been relegated last season had Saracens not been. However, this season, with former England forwards coach Steve Borthwick in charge, they have been much harder to beat and are playing some entertaining and effective rugby. In this article, we will look at the reasons for their improvements in greater detail.
The first thing is that Steve Borthwick has taken Leicester back to the way they used to play. The Tigers used to be feared at lineouts, because they would get the ball down and then drive forwards with speed towards the try line, using rolling mauls to push opponents backwards. This season, we have seen much more of this from them, and the addition of Argentina international Julian Montoya at hooker has helped with this a lot, as he has already scored some good tries so far this season. Therefore, one reason why Leicester are doing so well is that they are going back to what they know, such as these driving mauls.
Another change is that Leicester have added a South African flavour to the squad, increasing their strength in all areas of the pitch. Back-rowers Hanro Liebenberg, Jasper Wiese and Cyle Brink have all added power to Leicester’s ball-carrying drives since their signings over the last seasons, with all loving to run with the ball and collide with opponents, whilst Wiese in particular is always on the hunt for gaps in opposing defences. Centre Jaco Taute, meanwhile, has added more urgency in the midfield, running forward and closing opponents down when Leicester don’t have the ball, and offering himself as a passing option when they do. Having two or three of these players on the pitch has really benefitted Leicester, as they have been able to attack with more purpose as a result. This is another thing that has changed for the better at Welford Road this season.
Staying with the back row, we have mentioned how they have more power there, but they also now have more pace. Tommy Reffell is always leading forward charges and chasing balls down in the opponents’ half, increasing the pressure on opposing defenders to move the ball quicker, either by kicking the ball or passing it out, and this leads to more mistakes that the Tigers can take advantage of. Leicester in the last few seasons have stood back and allowed their opponents to run at them with the ball, so this is another alteration that has helped Leicester to be a more dangerous team to play against.
When it does come to match situations where they chase opponents down, Luke Wallace has proven to be a useful player in defence. Last season, following his arrival at Welford Road during the COVID break, he tended to play just behind the main defensive line, spotting where the gaps were and moving into them before opponents could use them to get through the line. Last season, with Leicester not defending well on the whole, this didn’t have too much effect, but it is more noticeable now that they are playing better. He has therefore enabled Leicester to be more flexibile tactically during games, which is another sign of their improvements this season.
In the middle of the field, Leicester have had England’s George Ford at fly-half for a few seasons now, but he has often not had the support around him to take the chances he creates. This season, Zack Henry has been his understudy, and has shown some excellent form, kicking well and finding spaces for his teammates to run into. In the last few years, when Leicester lost their international players, we always worried about them, because they never had enough cover, bit that has changed this season. Scrum-half was another key position where this was a problem, with academy graduate Ben White still establishing himself as a regular in the squad. Now, they have Jack van Poortvliet, another academy graduate, who has looked really impressive every time he has stepped on the pitch, and Richard Wigglesworth, who has brought bags of experience to the team in such a crucial position. Having these options is yet another reason for their upturn in form this season.
The wings have been a big problem area for Leicester in recent seasons. They had England international Jonny May up until the start of this season, but he moved back to Gloucester last summer. Apart from him, we always wondered where the Tigers’ would threaten from, and it led to them missing good opportunities to score. However, Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo, who was signed partway through last season, has become the old-fashioned marauding, powerful winger that Welford Road’s faithful have always enjoyed watching. Nadolo has a similar build to Bristol Bears’ Semi Radradra, another Fiji international, and we all know how much power Radradra brings to Bristol’s attack. When Nadolo is running forwards, he has the strength to fend opponents off and make metres, as well as having a try-scoring ability. He is not the only one, with Kobus van Wijk adding a threat on the other wing, but having these players has enabled Leicester to be more productive than previous seasons when they do get into their opponents try area.
The final reason for Leicester’s revival this season has been the talent coming through their academy. The likes of George Martin, the aforementioned van Poortvliet, Freddie Steward and Joe Heyes have all done really well this season, giving the Tigers pace and quality in all areas of the pitch. Steward in particular is a very attacking full-back, much like Exeter Chiefs full-back Stuart Hogg, with the Scotland captain always getting forward to join his team’s attacks. Steward similarly likes to chase his own kicks from the back, as well as combining well with other players, and has shown good form when defending too. Therefore, his presence has allowed the rest of Leicester’s players to focus on their own roles more, so this has been a massive benefit to their general play.
In conclusion, we have seen in this analysis several things that have led to Leicester Tigers’ improved form this season. There is no doubting that some excellent recruitment has given Leicester the players they need to play the way they want to, and adequately replacing departed players has also helped (such as Manu Tuilagi, whose departure last season has not been noticed too much). This all leads back to Steve Borthwick, who has pressed the reset button thsi season and made changes, tweaking Leicester’s tactics and making them much more difficult to beat. Whilst it will take a few seasons for them to really get back to where they were before, the English rugby giants are definitely on the rise again.