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The heritage of Leicester Tigers means they have to achieve something special to set a new record. But five wins from five games now constitutes their best ever start to a Premiership season.
They have already scored 20 tries. Over the entire 2019-20 campaign, when they would have been relegated without Saracens’ salary-cap misdemeanours, Leicester managed 35 tries.
While we have not yet reached November, this resurgence is for real. Here are six factors behind it.
The world’s best front-foot fly-half
Scott Baldwin, the 34-cap Wales hooker, spent last season spearheading Harlequins’ set-piece operation so that Marcus Smith could weave his magic. On Saturday afternoon, after his Worcester side were demolished 48-3, he had high praise for another fly-half.
“George Ford is one of the best in the world at playing on top of you,” said a chastened Baldwin after Leicester Tigers had laid siege to Sixways.
Although it would not prove enough to force his way back into the England squad, Ford had been imperious. A deft, try-scoring pass to Matias Moroni was one highlight that summed up how his instincts are functioning.
Scooping up a bobbling ball after Sam Lewis disrupts Jack van Poortvliet, Ford delays just long enough for Worcester wing Perry Humphreys to stop drifting and turn inwards. At that moment, the ball is released and Matias Moroni has enough room to wriggle over:
Ford tops the Premiership point-scoring table with 48, two ahead of Owen Farrell. He has thrown four passes that have directly created line-breaks. Only Danny Care, Callum Sheedy and Tom de Glanville can better that. They each have five.
This latest England exclusion means Tigers will be able to field Ford for a trip to Franklin’s Gardens on October 30 and the visit of Bath to Welford Road on November 5. Should he miss out on the Six Nations too, Ford will have seven further Premiership games to influence.
It is a season-shaping prospect, all the more so because of the infrastructure allowing Ford to shine.
Power game as a platform
If we rewind to the Moroni try mentioned in the previous section, watch the immediate build-up:
It is a typically bristling carry from Jasper Wiese that generates momentum prior to the try-scoring phase.
After five rounds of Premiership fixtures, only Wasps can boast a greater percentage of carries over the gain-line:
Tigers are loaded with brawny runners, but use them cleverly. Ellis Genge is often launched in midfield from shortened lineouts. When more forwards are tied up in the set piece, Nemani Nadolo comes in off his wing and becomes a hole-punching centre.
Marco van Staden and Wiese bullied Worcester. Julian Montoya is a handful. George Martin has made vast improvements as well. Hanro Liebenberg, who might be among the most well-rounded forwards in the league, usually holds his width as part of Leicester’s attacking shape and makes ground in the 15-metre channels.
Just as, if not more important than how Leicester play is where on the pitch they are playing.
Jonathan Thomas, the Worcester head coach, admitted that his team were “steamrollered”. He saluted a “complete performance” from Tigers and likened their constricting approach to a Test-match template.
That would make sense. Steve Borthwick joined Leicester from the England set-up and has a strong association with Saracens. He comes up against an old ally, Alex Sanderson, this weekend.
“The ability to squeeze teams and play in the right areas is the one factor that dictates the win-loss ratio of Test match rugby,” said Sanderson yesterday ahead of Sale Sharks’ trip to the East Midlands.
“It’s not how much ball you have, it’s where you play the game. They’ve got that down to a tee and they’ve been developing it over the past year.
“Borthers is very ‘probables-over-possibles’, which is a Saracens philosophy. But he’s very good and very smart at it. He’s highly analytical and plays the percentages. On the back of that, he now has a power game to back it up. When they are in the right areas, they have the best maul in the league.
“You’ve got to be able to get some field position, disrupt a maul and handle their big ball-carriers. If you don’t do any one of those things, you’re probably going to fall short.”
According to Opta, only Saracens have made more metres than Leicester through kicking so far this Premiership campaign. Only Saracens have registered fewer rucks per kick (1.9 to Leicester’s 2.3):
Tigers have averaged 22.4 rucks in their own half per game, with just Northampton spending less time in possession behind the halfway line:
Ford has been to the fore, amassing 1,894 metres with the boot. One man, Gloucester’s box-kicking scrum-half Ben Meehan (2211m), is above him on that score.
As Sanderson suggested, Leicester have been developing this side of their game since Borthwick’s arrival. The foundation he built comprised three pillars: kicking, fitness and defence.
Industrious chasers such as Harry Potter and Liebenberg are valuable in kicking exchanges, so often shutting down opposition catchers to make sure their side keeps moving forward. What has been different this term is Tigers’ ambition and accuracy in counter-attacking situations.
Twice in quick succession, Leicester lacerated Worcester with clinical kick-returns. Ford’s cross-kick to Nadolo here is delicious:
And the support play of Wigglesworth and Nic Dolly for the next score, off the back of Freddie Steward’s break, exemplifies an industrious, intelligent team:
The acquisition of Aled Walters is paying dividends.
Fit enough to fulfil a game plan
Leicester’s slump between 2018 and 2020 was characterised by disjointed pre-seasons and high squad turnover, which manifested in low fitness levels. Tigers often ran out of puff and more cohesive opponents would pick them off. How that has changed.
Walters arrived from his time as South Africa’s head conditioner with a big reputation and a World Cup winner’s medal. He is delivering on the optimism surrounding his appointment.
Along with Ford and Liebenberg, Dan Cole is one of three men to have started all five of Leicester’s victories. Let him explain the benefits of more sophisticated training methods, which are necessary with a more streamlined squad:
“Once upon a time, we’d play on a Saturday then bash each other in units on a Tuesday morning and a Tuesday afternoon and then do the same thing on Thursday afternoon. We were a very physical team because we had great depth and great players.
“Now, we don’t have that depth and sports science has evolved. You can’t be playing three games a week, as we used to joke. You’ve got to be looking after your body and the teams that do the best are the teams who keep their best players on the field. Rugby’s evolved.
“The game is tougher but the training weeks are easier, in some regard, because there is more of an emphasis on recovery and feeling good for the game. Back 10 years ago, or whatever it was, it was last man standing – especially at this place where you have three international tightheads, two international hookers and four international second-rows.
“If you lost someone in training because it was physical, the next one stepped up and so on and so forth. That was fun, and great to develop into… but it was tough in training.”
On Saturday, Leicester scored one of their seven tries while Liebenberg was in the sin bin. They would have had another, but this finish from Steward was ruled out because of a breakdown neck-roll by Van Staden:
Again, we need to rewind. Here is Worcester fly-half Fin Smith restarting the game after Wigglesworth’s try. Note the time on the clock. It reads 58.12:
A long, unbroken sequence ensues. Leicester clear, defend robustly, gather a high ball through Steward and exert pressure following another kicking exchange. Eventually, they move the ball wide and Nadolo chips ahead.
Some four minutes on from Smith’s restart, Worcester have to clear from their own try-line. Remember, Tigers only have 14 men. No matter. Steward takes a quick lineout to keep the tempo high. Ford unleashes the tireless Potter…
…and Steward crosses out wide on the following phase.
Think of Wales in the heyday of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards. Even if they were not fitter than everyone else, they believed they were. That sort of conviction and swagger, epitomised in Steward’s non-try, can be a powerful thing.
Spend two minutes listening to anyone from Leicester Tigers speak this season you will hear the F-word.
Fight. This is evidently the message they want to convey. Tigers no longer wilt as they used to. The positive reinforcement is working.
Fortune played its part as Leicester held out Gloucester to win at Kingshom. Eight days later, a 13-12 defeat of Saracens just about amounted to daylight robbery.
Determination is an intangible quality, but statistics back up Borthwick’s assertion that Tigers have rediscovered their steeliness. No club has allowed opponents fewer points per visit to their own 22:
Leicester’s tackle completion rate (85.1 per cent) is the best in the Premiership and their average number of what Opta categorises as ‘dominant tackles’ also leads the league:
In Tommy Reffell, Van Staden, Liebenberg, Montoya, Nadolo, Nephi Leatigaga and Harry Wells, Tigers boast a phalanx of effective jackallers.
If opponents concede breakdown penalties, they will have to repel lineout mauls and power-runners following in its wake. If they kick the ball away, they will have to be coordinated enough to better Tigers in kicking exchanges. Everything is connected, and fight is a good place to start.
Steve Borthwick takes control
After a period of upheaval, Borthwick is gradually consolidating. The clarity he has instilled extends to recruitment. Dolly, whose meteoric rise has extended to an England call-up, and Ollie Chessum have been canny pick-ups from the Championship.
Borthwick evidently has certain characteristics in mind for each position as he assembles his roster. Hosea Saumaki, the Tonga wing, is an explosive back-up to Nadolo. By bringing in both Juan Pablo Socino and Dan Lancaster, Borthwick supplemented a group of distributing inside centres that also includes Dan Kelly.
One of the most encouraging aspects of last weekend’s win was the verve of Freddie Burns, acquired last summer to be Ford’s deputy.
Many of the players that arrived between 2018 and 2020 have now left. Some have thrived under Borthwick, though. Potter, Guy Porter and Cameron Henderson would be in that latter camp.
The capture of Wiese would have looked even better had the 25-year-old not attracted the attention of South Africa selectors. He and Van Staden, as well as Pumas Montoya and Moroni, will be around during the Six Nations, though. What a boost.
Here is a look at Borthwick’s match-day 23s so far this season. Cole, Ford and Liebenberg are the three players to have started all five games. Genge, an inspired choice of captain, Steward, Wells, Dolly and Burns have been the other ever-presents:
Unsurprisingly, it seems that Leicester is a good place to be a lock-back row hybrid. Borthwick likes to have at least one, preferably two, rangy back-rowers on the pitch to rule the lineout.
The team that sticks out is the one that eked out a win over Saracens. That afternoon, Borthwick aimed to stay in the contest long enough for his bench to mount a late charge. The ploy worked brilliantly.
Genge, Leatigaga, Wells, Van Poortvliet and Steward were particularly influential and Henderson influenced the lineout as well. It was a maul that won the game.
A Telegraph reader, Apechild Redux, was in the stands at Welford Road that day and commented on our match report to say that Borthwick was particularly animated on introducing Genge, Van Poortvliet and Steward in the 47th minute. In-game poise and proactivity are traits that mark out the very best coaches.
The press seats at Sixways are right next to those occupied by visiting players and backroom staff. Billy Searle’s kick-off sailed directly into touch, so Tigers had a scrum put-in immediately.
As the set piece assembled, Borthwick rose from his seat, walked down the stairs and addressed the assistant referee. “Touchie, they’re doing it already,” he said. You can see Rory Sutherland, Worcester’s British and Irish Lions loosehead prop, looking across in the direction of this conversation:
Borthwick was obviously keen to highlight something that he had discussed with the officials before the game, and wasted no time in doing so.
Another, more senior job with England may well materialise one day. For now, Borthwick is driving Tigers impressively.