After stumbling to three losses in a row over recent weeks, Leicester Tigers showed their fighting spirit in a huge seven try win over London Irish last weekend. Man of the match Freddie Burns dictated the flow of the game from his first choice fly-half role, whilst Jean De Villiers scored his first Tigers try on his home debut at Welford Road. His teammates also crossing the whitewash included 22 year old Harry Thacker and Australian born Lachlan McCaffrey, who Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill said has “done very well at eight” as well as at flanker.
Mike Williams came back to the match day squad last week after being side lined due to a broken arm, whilst club captain Ed Slater continues to contribute well after returning from injuries and setbacks. Describing the strength and wealth of talent in his forwards, Cockerill praised the blend of players he has as options in the back five.
“Fitzgerald and Barrow have been standout for us, physically very good. Ed’s physically very good and has got a great mindset.
“With Croft’s lineout ability and athleticism and Locky (McCaffrey) as well, it gives us good balance. We’ve got three very physical back five forwards in the locks and at eight. Locky’s more of a ball player, Crofty’s a very good lineout player and good in the wide channels.”
And with even more powerful players eager to help keep Tigers in the top four of the Aviva Premiership, Cockerill has choices for “various weathers and game plans” in the coming weeks.
“Fonua’s doing well and he’ll be back in a couple of weeks time, and he’s broken the 140 kilo mark. He’s lost nearly fifteen kilos from when he arrived, so he’s working hard. And, obviously, we have Jordan Crane and Pearce still in the wings as well.”
So is this the key to Leicester’s success going forward?
In recent times, Leicester have adopted more versatile second and back rows, with less specialist players specific to a certain position, but rather adaptable players who can interchange between roles. McCaffrey is a prime example. Whilst proving himself as a reliable and successful number eight, he can often be found at openside flanker, where he also carries well and develops the game. Speaking on whether it is important for forwards have this attribute, he said whilst the basics are most important, “everyone you talk to will have a different opinion.”
“Some guys will really like that on-ball seven, some guys like the big eight or six – everyone’s different. For me, I think if you’re generally just a good rugby player and you read the game well you can play in most positions in the forward pack, especially across the back row. It’s sometimes a little different with combinations in and out, but I think we have a lot of options in that back row who are generally just good, smart rugby players that, if you give them a job to do, they’ll do it well.”
And it seems the competition amongst the forwards to earn a starting place on match day pushes the standard of Leicester’s back two rows higher.
“Competition from the start of the year’s been so strong… If you’re not performing you know someone else will take that position off you pretty quickly. I’m under no illusions – from the first day of pre-season I knew I’m not one of the big names who will just slot into a position easily. It’s through hard work that you get games and you know if you don’t work hard during the week and train well and put that performance in on game day you won’t get many more opportunities, so the competition’s great. Personally it’s good for me to keep pushing myself and hopefully I can keep playing well and keep a jersey in that back row.”
Perhaps it’s the atmosphere at the club that lends itself to a strong connection between the players and that allows this versatility to thrive. The “family feel” described by McCaffrey is echoed by many of his teammates, and whilst some of the players are “off getting loved up”, he prefers a slightly different domestic lifestyle, cooking for Freddie Burns and enjoying those famous McCaffrey pancakes.
Harry Thacker also hailed the squad’s morale and determination in helping them out of a “sticky situation” having lost three out of four games in February.
“We’ve got a good vibe in the squad. Even when we were losing we still did because we know what this team’s capable of. We’ve got some good individuals and as a team we’re bonding. We know we can do good things.”
Thacker is another player who has shone in more than one position. Starting at hooker against Irish, the academy product has surprised spectators by slotting easily into the back row. When urged to admit his preferred position he revealed being in the number two shirt is best, but as long as he’s on the pitch his preference is irrelevant.
As they head into a tough match against Exeter Chiefs this Sunday, Tigers will be hoping their powerful five will dominate the set pieces, carry well and perform with pace at the breakdown. The versatility and connection between the squad should compose what is bound to be an intense 80 minutes of rugby. This could be the fundamental factor in Leicester’s progression towards the end of the season. One thing is for sure though – Cockerill is confident in the fact that his forwards have the ability to overpower and outplay the strongest of opponents.