'We used to get stuck in the man test': How the Leicester Tigers attack is evolving

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Nemani Nadolo - Getty Images
Nemani Nadolo - Getty Images

Calum Green is an understated, industrious and robust lock; the sort of player that tends to be appreciated and admired at Welford Road. For that reason, his thoughts on Leicester Tigers’ attacking evolution are intriguing.

While re-establishing a foundation of set-piece strength and fitness, tied together by kicking strategy, head coach Steve Borthwick has been gradually improving the handling of his forwards.

Tight-five heavies have been urged to touch the ball as much as possible in early-morning skills sessions. Saturday’s 34-19 victory over Exeter Chiefs, featuring five tries, brought a sense of vindication.

Calum Green  - PA
Calum Green - PA

“Over the past couple of years, a lot of us forwards haven’t really done that,” explained Green on Monday. “It’s been head-down, breakdown, tackle. That sort of thing. It’s opened our eyes a bit, seeing how much better we are when we use those skills.”

“It’s a lot easier to run at space than run into a man but, in years gone by, we maybe got stuck in that ‘man test’, thinking: ‘I’m just going to run into someone and hope I win that yard’.

“If you find a weak shoulder or an edge, you’ll win two or three yards. And if you do that in the middle [of the field], there should be space elsewhere. We saw it a little bit at the weekend and we’re going to keep at it.”

Despite absorbing long periods of pressure against Chiefs, Tigers registered 11 offloads. Exeter registered five. Every member of Leicester’s starting pack completed at least two passes, with forwards accounting for 30 of the 114 passes that the hosts accumulated over the 80 minutes. In a 40-3 loss to Bristol last September, perhaps the nadir of the club’s slump, Tigers forwards passed four times.

In short, Leicester combined defensive steel with accurate attack in their opening Premiership encounter. Nobody will be surprised that Borthwick has been reserved in his assessment – “we couldn’t get near the ball in the third quarter,” he said – but the win, albeit over significantly depleted rivals, represented a promising start to the process of adding another dimension to their game. Here are some highlights.

Precision from the launch and options in phase-play

Tigers centre Matt Scott made the point that Ben Youngs and George Ford, both spared Test commitments last summer, had spent most of pre-season with Leicester. Scott said that has brought clarity to the side’s shape.

If Ford has really dropped out of Eddie Jones’ plans, as today’s England training squad would seem to suggest, Leicester’s play-off prospects will be significantly boosted.

Anyway, from this 11th minute lineout, hooker Nic Dolly finds Harry Wells before the ball is moved from Youngs to Ford. Jack Innard is Exeter’s defensive tail-gunner…

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…but cannot get near Leicester’s fly-half because of the number of runners in motion. Ford has four passing options. Nemani Nadolo is on his left with George Martin and Ellis Genge flat and Dan Kelly in behind:

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Genge is launched at the gap between Joe Simmonds and Ollie Devoto. Remember that for later:

On the following phase, Dolly rounds the ruck to stand at first-receiver with Ford nestled in behind. Note the angle taken by Scott, and how that affects Innard:

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As Dolly fixes Jannes Kirsten, Scott aims at Innard’s left shoulder. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it stops Innard’s drift. Secondly, it causes Henry Slade to move further in-field. Dolly pulls the ball back to Ford, who has Nadolo lurking:

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Ford waits for Slade to bite before feeding Nadolo, who offloads to Kelly out of Tom O’Flaherty’s tackle. Innard does cover across to fell Freddie Steward but right wing Harry Potter gets his hands on the ball:

Leicester bounce towards the far touchline, with George Martin throwing a pull-back to Ford behind another Genge charge. Here, a flat pass might have seen the skipper score:

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Unperturbed, Tigers retain possession. Watch the rest of the attack, which finishes with Freddie Steward’s finish:

This is an interesting snapshot. From a breakdown around 15 metres in-field, Tigers are poised to attack both sides of the breakdown. On the near side, Ford has four passing outlets: Nadolo on the inside, Genge and Green flat, Kelly in behind.

However, Youngs spins to the short side and throws a cut-out pass beyond Potter and Scott – both of whom hold up their hands to interest defenders – to Tommy Reffell:

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Let Scott explain the importance of filling the field like this:

“A big theme for us, both in attack and defence, is how quickly we can get back into the game. We want 15 guys attacking at any one time. We’re not thinking ‘the ball is on that side of the pitch so I’ll have a break on the short side here’.

“We very much champion guys who do that work off the ball. It’s stuff that maybe your average supporter wouldn’t notice, but it creates tries for teammates.”

When Leicester do move back towards the near touchline, there is another pull-back from Martin to Ford. The interplay between Nadolo and Genge is slick, with the skipper holding his depth and readjusting to make himself available:

Then comes the finish, with Ford pulling the strings. He receives a pass with three Chiefs defenders opposite him and four attackers to his right. One of them, Dolly, is on the edge and excited about the overlap:

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Ford stays calm, fading across Rus Tuima. This causes Sean Lonsdale to turn in as O’Flaherty steps out to cover Dolly. A big hole opens up for Steward…

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…and Tigers open their account.

Varied threats and formations

Leicester have the assets to thrive in kicking exchanges. Steward is phenomenal under the high ball and it is a safe bet that Youngs and Ford will cause headaches for back-three opponents in the era of the 50:22 law.

The former almost catches Jack Nowell napping here:

Later in the same sequence, towards the end of the first quarter, Leicester have settled into an intriguing phase-play shape. Nadolo is in midfield, again alongside Genge, where a forward might usually be. England have often lined up Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola in a similar way.

Dan Cole and two back-rowers, Reffell and Hanro Liebenberg, are close to the far touchline. Meanwhile, as Youngs feeds Ford, Potter offers himself on the inside with Kelly, Scott and Steward arcing behind Nadolo and Genge.

Nowell has now pressed up flat because Leicester are beyond halfway and the threat of a 50:22 has gone:

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Even so, Exeter are undone. The Nadolo-Genge tag-team fixes three Chiefs defenders – Tuima, Don Armand and Jack Maunder – with Ford passing out the back to Scott. Nowell finds himself isolated…

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…and Tigers should have made more of this situation:

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In the end, Reffell throws a forward pass to Liebenberg. Leicester fans did not have to wait long for a second try, though. Nadolo’s bulldozing run through Joe Simmonds leads to Potter dotting down out wide following a fine pass from Youngs:

Tigers reconfigure their backline in order to bring out the best in Nadolo in this instance. He abandons Leicester’s left wing and stands in midfield alongside Martin to threaten the hole between Joe Simmonds and Devoto – as Genge did prior to Steward’s try.

Kelly adopts the role of blindside wing on Ford’s inside with Potter on the edge beyond Scott and Steward:

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This fluidity extended to unstructured situations.

Unsung running

Scott’s try was the most spectacular of the afternoon, but it came from unselfish graft off the ball. Note Potter’s initial position as Steward climbs to take this high ball:

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By the time the ball has been recycled, Potter has arced all the way across the field. He carries after Ford receives this pull-back from Kelly:

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On the next phase, Wells finds Ford behind the hard line of Dolly. Watch Scott:

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He cuts underneath Ford to hold up the Exeter drift:

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From there, passes from Reffell and Green put Steward in space and a fortuitous bounce allows the full-back to recover his own chip.

Tigers’ broken-field support play is excellent. Liebenberg, Kelly and Reffell secure the ball at the ruck and Wells arrives just before Youngs to adopt the scrum-half role, lifting a pass to Scott.

Look carefully and you will see Dolly offering himself on the far side of the breakdown:

Exeter are always heralded for their fitness. Conversely, Leicester looked lethargic over recent years. No longer.

Passes from the pack

Attacking in transition situations regularly depends on forwards moving the ball away from a turnover, with tries often conjured out of very little.

There were promising signs from Leicester in this regard. Before half-time, on the back of Scott’s jackal, a pass to Dolly foreshadowed offloads from Genge and Reffell:

In the second period, after two pushover tries, more forwards showed their distribution skills. Exeter attempt to run the ball from deep in their own half with Harvey Skinner lifting an inside pass to Slade.

Eli Snyman tracks across to make a strong tackle and force the ball loose. Watch where four highlighted forwards – Nephi Leatigaga, Dolly, Ollie Chessum and Reffell – start…

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…and how they respond after Francois van Wyk secures the ball:

Leatigaga steps up at scrum-half, with Dolly pulling a pass behind a hard line from Chessum to Reffell, who finds Guy Porter. Only Nowell’s fine tackle stops Nadolo.

Still,this is an example of how handling from forwards can put more dangerous runners into space.

Leicester’s attack is being overseen by Matt Smith, a former centre who amassed 228 first-team appearances for Tigers, and player-coach Richard Wigglesworth. They were alongside one another in the stands on Saturday:

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Scott described them as a “passionate” pair of “sympathetic people-managers”, even if he joked that Wigglesworth has assumed a more abrasive “bad cop” demeanour.

Ahead of a trip to Kingsholm followed by a meeting with Saracens, two games that will gauge their quality, Tigers look to be striking a similarly effective blend on the field as well.

Match images courtesy of Premiership Rugby and BT Sport

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