The world of rugby has gone a bit mad – New Zealand have just lost for the first time in over two years, Argentina have recorded their first ever victory over Australia and back on home shores Leicester Tigers, for so long the dominant force of English rugby, have only just dragged themselves up to 8th in the Aviva Premiership. They have won ten English titles and back-to-back European crowns but right now English rugby’s most successful side are going through one of their most difficult periods in years. The win against Harlequins has finally stopped the rot – but have the Tigers lost their bite?
The fact that this latest win prevented them from losing four games in succession for the first time in a decade shows the extent of their plight. Having reached nine of the last thirteen play-off finals, it’s fair to say Leicester have become used to residing at the pinnacle of the English game, yet they are thoroughly deserving of the trouble they currently find themselves in. Two close wins to kick off the season were followed by their largest ever defeat when Bath destroyed them 45-0, a first win at Welford Road for London Irish in 11 years and a pitiful loss against Gloucester, who were 30-9 up after just 40 minutes. It was the first time Leicester had lost three league games in a row since October 2011.
They have showed character to get that long awaited win but the Tigers still look bereft of cohesion and are shipping points at a shocking rate. There is palpable concern and agitation amongst many fans not used to any form of mediocrity, let alone bottom of the table struggles. Their dominance of the set piece has vanished and their defensive pattern is non-existent, with too many individuals doing different things as opposed to working as a group. The attack is hardly firing on any cylinders at all.
One of the fall-guys has been the Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill. The worst league start under his tenure has left him facing criticism from a small minority for the first time since he took charge in February 2009. Some of have cited that his famously challenging training environment and methods are exacting a too heavy toll on his players. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s inevitable that the coach takes most of the flack when a club’s fortunes and form drop dramatically and Cockerill has so far willingly taken all the heat, admirably diverting the attention away from his players. He has defiantly stuck by his team, his belief that they will still reach the play-offs and the methods which he claims he will not change just to suit augmenting public pressure. ‘I am here for the battle, I ain’t going anywhere. If I am going to get the sack, I am doing it my way.’ He retains the support of his chief executive and chairman but if the performances do not improve, the numbers clamouring for his removal will only increase.
However, it is the third season out of the last four that Leicester have been hit by a glut of significant injuries that have severely undermined Cockerill’s plans. At one point they were deprived of an astonishing 22 players, including nine senior front-five forwards. The replacements have been playing and training without backup – squad players being required to transform into consistent regulars. Any side would suffer without figures such as Dan Cole, Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Geoff Parling, Tom Youngs and Captain Ed Slater. It’s not just the number of injuries and the personnel missing but the positions in which they have occurred. For example, they have lost their chief line-out organiser and two-thirds of a previously dominant front row. Many of these injuries have frustratingly happened away from club duty. One silver lining for Leicester is that quality reinforcements will be back and the injury luck will surely change. How can a side lose their bite if they’ve been missing so many teeth?
The flip side of this argument is that the annual November tests are fast approaching. Leicester will again lose many of their big players for s sustained period of time, something that they could desperately do without. It could well be the case that the squad has a dangerous imbalance of international players which will leave them too exposed during and after this international period. Indeed the last time they lost so many successive games was when 11 players were away with England at the 2011 World Cup. The recovery from this player shortage may not last for long.
Yet the Tiger’s problems perhaps go beyond bad luck and a loss of form. Has the aura gone? Is Welford Road still the daunting venue it once was? Their psychological hold over teams has diminished and the trepidation among opponents has changed to belief. Questions have been asked over the club’s actual player policy, with a number of the players who have been recently released having gone on to become full internationals, such as Twelvetrees and Ford. Some argue that other teams now produce more quality gems from their academies and sign more marquee players.
The only way is up for Leicester and it is far too early to be completely writing them off. With their massive support behind them and the return of experienced men from injury to come, a backlash could still be on the cards. Their season hasn’t yet been defined but the next few games will begin to really shape where it is going. Cockerill will hope his players will stand up and be ready for the challenge ahead. The cracks have started to be papered over – it will be a while before they are completely filled.
It is a moment of reckoning for Leicester Tigers. The pressure is on and as long as their troubles continue the argument that they have well and truly lost their bite is going to look more and more convincing.