Last Word On Rugby, by Molly Smith
A lot can be said for Leicester Tigers‘ solid win over Bath Rugby last weekend. Not only was it a relief for their dedicated fan base, but the comprehensive win over the West Country side injected much needed optimism into Richard Cockerill‘s men, who made a rusty start to the season. Now with three wins from four, Tigers prepare to face Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday, fuelled by this confidence boost and a change from tradition.
A Southern Stronghold
This breakthrough can be largely put down to the development of the side last season, a ‘transition year for the club’. With significant changes in back room staff and revolutionary signings, it gave Leicester a new dimension. Aaron Mauger‘s posting as Head Coach has been crucial in how the team have performed. His simple, yet structured approach to game-play has paid off when applied correctly–landing the East Midlands side in both the 2015/16 Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup semi-finals. Whilst he applauds his fellow coaches, saying it’s always a “team effort”, you can’t ignore the magnitude of his influence on the team’s ethos both on and off the pitch.
Many players last year gave thanks to his insistence of them bonding outside of rugby, ensuring trust and connection between the squad, reflected in their natural ability to cohere on the field. The former All Black was also credited with improving their ‘running-style’ of rugby, allowing pace to be just as important as power–most associated with the Tigers’ of old.
Running Style of Rugby
This effect emanates from his Southern Hemisphere background, and even though he says the club has always had a “cosmopolitan flavour”, it seems evident now; more than ever. how much of an impact foreign influences are having on Leicester’s style of rugby.
“It’s good for the English players because if you’ve only ever been in one environment you only know that environment, so those players [from Southern Hemisphere] have brought good experiences and they want to come here because it’s a quality environment.”
“They want to learn around parts of the English game and learn a different style, which is stimulating for them as well as they learn a lot from the English players. It’s good for us to have that diverse mix,” say’s Mauger.
Mauger and Cockerill
Mauger’s effect is not only being shown on the pitch by the players, but by his counterpart Cockerill. Gone are the days where the club’s former hooker would find himself in hot water for berating match officials, or having heated discussions in post-match press rooms. Now the Director of Rugby seems more patient and, when needed, more constructive with his criticism. Is this down to Mauger’s calming influence? Perhaps, although the Kiwi seems to think each of the coaches bring something different to the set up.
“We’re all there to help grow each other and create awareness around things that potentially could be done better and things that are being done well. We all learn well from each other, but it’s good for everyone to remain themselves and be their own character within it.
“As long as we are giving the right messages to the players and we’re going in the right direction, it’s good to see that personal flavour still come out,” Mauger said.
There was a particular Southern Hemisphere infusion at the start of last season, with the addition of Southern stars, such as Peter Betham, Brendon O’Connor, Mike Williams, Telusa Veainu and Lachlan McCaffrey, to name but a few. These players gave the pack added flair that allowed them to adapt each week to different teams and conditions. O’Connor and McCaffrey worked wonders in the back row, whilst momentous displays of speed and skill often put Betham and Veainu in Premiership ‘dream teams’ as the rounds progressed.
Southern Hemisphere contingent at Tigers’
Despite being injured towards the end of last season, Zimbabwe-born Williams has made a strong comeback and has already been eyed up by Eddie Jones to feature in his provisional elite squad for England [who Mike Williams qualifies to play for].
Over the summer, more athletes flew in from Australia and South Africa to bolster the Southern Hemisphere contingent at Tigers’ – JP Pietersen (main photo) has made a big mark on the Premiership so far. Sitting in second place for most breaks made (seven) after four rounds. Springbok Pat Cilliers is set to make his debut for the club in the coming weeks when he features in the A-League, before no doubt heading into the first team squad. Matt Toomua made his long-awaited arrival in the UK last night, with Mauger revealing he went through his medical this morning and hoped to see him training in the coming days. All three undoubtedly are sure to have a huge impact on Leicester’s hunt for silverware, in the next few months.
The Diversity of Premiership Rugby
It’s fascinating to see how the Premiership is flourishing with a more expansive approach to the game. As Lachlan McCaffrey admitted, the level of club rugby in England is “exciting” thanks to the diversity in playing styles.
“It’s the best of both worlds at the minute. You get the best of English rugby and you get the best of Northern Hemisphere scrummaging up front with a few Southern Hemisphere guys mixed into the backline.”
“That’s why the Premiership is such a good level now… You’re getting some of the best players from around the world,” said McCaffrey.
So how can these Southern Hemisphere professionals enhance Leicester as they continue their Premiership campaign, as well as look to make a bold start in the Champions Cup?
Experience is always advantageous, and the skills that these players can bring to this ‘traditional’ English club won’t go amiss. These attributes certainly aren’t lacking in the current squad, but the strength of a team can be determined by the quality of their impact players off the bench. With Mauger and Cockerill both singing from the same songbook, comes a new vision, a ‘change from tradition’. With players of such standard still flocking to Leicester and each bringing something different to an already competitive squad, the team can only get better.
Cockerill’s men will hope to continue their good form with an away win against Sale on Saturday (3pm kick off). The Manchester based side did ‘the double’ over the Tigers last season, something that all at Leicester will hope to rectify.
Peter Betham says there are “no thoughts of revenge”, although players and supporters alike will be eager to put the record straight.