After two rounds of the 2015/16 Aviva Premiership season, Leicester and Saracens sit atop the table, with a win at home to Harlequins today meaning that the Tigers start with two wins from two. In the case of Leicester, it will be particularly satisfying having suffered a wobbly start at the beginning of the last campaign. A good start was always going to be vital in settling early nerves, particularly with a raft of new recruits and a new coaching structure.
But how good has the start to the season really been? It is easy to forget that the Tigers actually won the first two games of last season’s campaign, which included a victorious visit to Exeter – no mean feat considering the quality of Exeter’s season. It was only in the third week with a 45-0 hiding from Bath that the wheels started to fall off.
The Tigers’ pre-season showed encouraging signs. Whilst newbies in the pack pack Mike Williams, Mike Fitzgerald and Lachlan McCaffrey all appear to be fine signings and have slotted in well already, it was the marked difference in the backs that caught the eye in a high scoring defeat to Argentina, and confident displays against Sale and Newcastle in the Kings of the North tournament. Australian back Peter Betham added pace and finishing to a backline clearly benefitting from an added level of freedom granted by new head coach Aaron Mauger. There were hopes of a new approach from the Tigers, and thoughts of perhaps blowing teams away with swashbuckling intricate back play.
The reality is never that simple of course. Yes, Leicester are one of two sides to have started with back to back wins, but it hasn’t been as encouraging as the fans may have hoped. For all the hope of high scoring displays, only two tries have been registered so far: Betham’s interception in the season opener against London Irish at the Madejski Stadium, and Laurence Pearce’s late pushover in today’s narrow victory against Harlequins. The rugby has been far from free flowing, and whilst there has been plenty of evidence of the backs trying things, it just hasn’t clicked yet.
Implementing a new playing style after the ineffectiveness of last season is never going to happen instantly. Being able to turn on the style on a hard pitch in pre-season in fixtures that naturally open up due to the large number of substitutions is one thing, but translating that into a tight game with early season nerves is something else entirely.
Of concern to Mauger and Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill will be the spectre that haunted the early stages of last season: injuries. Most notably those in the ten and twelve channel. The Premiership season hadn’t even begun when it was learned that Freddy Burns was unlikely to appear this side of December owing to a broken jaw collected from the last Kings of the North fixture. And whilst Owen Williams is thankfully back in action after a long lay off with a knee injury, he must surely be short of the necessary match fitness to be pitched straight back in. Tommy Bell had been moved to the fly half slot for the opening two games and was performing more than adequately, but he limped off in the second half today after saving a try in his own 22. With Seremaia Bai also having departed early in the game, after a heavy collision with Mat Luamanu caused him to require a head impact assessment, Leicester look very thin on the ground in both positions if Bell or Bai’s injuries keep them out of next week’s clash with new local rivals Wasps.
The inside centre birth has been one that needed some attention even before injury sadly curtailed Anthony Allen’s career over the summer, with the hope of a marquee signing to add quality. This has yet to materialise, whilst both Cockerill and Chief Executive Simon Cohen have been recorded discussing the need to find the right player, and their willingness to wait a season for this to happen if necessary. With Cockerill now indicating that South Africa’s outgoing captain Jean de Villiers may well be signing to see out his career at Welford Road — as soon as he recovers from the broken jaw that ended his Rugby World Cup campaign — it perhaps adds weight to the theory that a marquee signing has indeed been lined up for the twelve position for 2016/17. Matt Toomua’s name has also been linked to the club, and he would indeed appear to be ideal for the kind of game that Mauger is looking to impose, but as ever Cockerill remained coy when questioned about him on local radio.
In the meantime, De Villiers’ arrival could be an important one in the interim. Not only does he possess the playmaking qualities that could release the likes of Betham and Vereniki Goneva to weave their magic, he also possessed experience and leadership that could assist Mauger in the implication of his master plan.
An added bonus in the more immediate future will be the arrival of England qualified kiwi Brendan O’Connor, fresh from captaining his Hawke’s Bay side to ITM Cup success. His presence in the seven shirt will provide a more natural ball winning option to Tom Croft, who has not looked at his best out of position in the opening rounds of the season.
So far it is two very good results for the Tigers, but not necessarily two very good performances. If the wins keep coming and the system starts to click, a good season may await, but they surely will not expect to keep picking up the wins with performances like today’s.