Leicester Tigers’ recent form drop – a worry for supporters or not?

Leicester Tigers' recent form drop
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From afar, the Leicester Tigers’ recent form drop could be on one hand, a worry for their supporters or, it is nothing more than a blip on a very near to perfect 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership.

Leicester Tigers had an unexpected Saturday off last week. Due to their last pool game in the Heineken Champions Cup against Bordeaux being abandoned [due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in the French team’s ranks]. As a result, the Tigers were awarded a 28-0 win, and five competition points to go with it. This meant they finished top of Pool B with 19 points, comfortably taking them into the last 16 with little drama.

They are also sitting pretty in the top spot of the Gallagher Premiership table, having won 11 out of their 13 games so far. To date, it has been a rather brilliant season for Leicester, with much to shout about.

So in theory, there should be no worries. So why are there some slight concerns amongst some quarters of their strong supporter base?

Leicester Tigers’ recent form drop – a worry or not?

Well, this is mainly down to the ‘perception’ of the performances on the pitch in games and their most recent form. Leicester Tigers’ results have been exemplary – winning all bar two of their fixtures this season tells you that. Fans should be elated; especially given the recent history of the club – one that still has not forgotten the trauma of consecutive eleventh placed finishes.

However, in recent weeks, the Tigers have not hit the high standards in their performances compared to where they were at the start of the season. Lately, comeback victories against Bristol and Connacht have been superb, and warmly received by supporters; however, they came after Tigers had been very much under-par in the 79 minutes that had proceeded those winning moments.

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These last-minute comebacks have fed into that concern – is getting out of jail in the last moments a good trait to have or does it mask wider problems? And secondly, what is actually more important, results or performances?

Well for starters, Leicester are not unique in asking these questions. The same could also be said of Harlequins, for whom their reputation for leaving it late is probably greater than Tigers. Quins added to that with another last-gasp winner against Castres in their final European pool game; Alex Dombrandt’s final score (with a little help from the officials) coming with the clock in the red.

The internal debate is whether a good team would have won the game without the stress of needing the last play to do so? Or is it a sign of ‘a good team wins’ when the cause appears lost? The ‘Quins mantra more and more is the latter – backing themselves to find a win even from the most hopeless of causes (see their 2021 Cup final win).

2021/22 – the Expectation Game

When analyzing Leicester Tigers’ recent form, their main challenge is a game of managing expectations. Where they are as a club, is still very much of one in transition and a work in progress. They have a host of young players that are full of talent and promise – such as Freddie Steward, Joe Heyes, George Martin amongst so many others. This is great – these are hugely motivated young men, who are desperate to learn and get better.

Therein lies the challenge – they are still learning, they are not the finished article, and the club are facing new experiences with each game they face. As a result, performances are very much a constant work on. Each week will bring different challenges for the squad to overcome, as these young players get more and more acquainted with top level rugby.

Already they have shown they are the fastest learners in the country – 18 months ago, the same group of players took a record hammering on the road against Wasps. Now here they are, with almost a 100% record in January.

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The challenge Leicester faces comes from being a work in progress who are constantly working on ‘learning and improving’ yet, paired to results that put them amongst the very elite in Tigers recent history. In retrospect, they have played 18 games in all competitions (not including the canceled Bordeaux fixture), and have won 16. These include putting away domestic heavy-hitters such as Exeter, Harlequins and Saracens at home, as well as impressive away victories at Bordeaux and Gloucester.

Their run of victories very nearly broke all club records – they have exceeded runs achieved by the great Tigers sides, featuring club legends such as Martin Johnson, Lewis Moody, Neil Back, etc. Their run of results is better than anything achieved under head coaches Richard Cockerill and Pat Howard, who were supremely successful in their stints at the helm. Results this season would put them on a par with the all-conquering Leicester side that won four Premiership titles in a row from 1998 through to 2002. Who won back-to-back European Cups along the way.

This, therefore, creates a natural imbalance – they are a work in progress yet, achieving elite results week to week. And with that, an expectation has too grown from that recent success.

Put it down to Leicester Tiger’s culture

What is important to mention when it comes the current Leicester Tigers group is the culture that is imposed by their current Head Coach. Recently appointed Steve Borthwick has transformed the squad and the club overall in his first full season. Borthwick’s primary focus [when you listen to him in press conferences or his post-match interviews] is primarily around the performance levels of his players. He consistently repeats his mantra of encouraging the players to “put in performances the supporters can be proud of”.

Even at last week’s press conference, he told the media that “we don’t obsess about the result. I’m talking about the performance, and we’ve got a long way to go to get where we want to get, so we just need to get better.” Borthwick then added that win or lose, the primary mantra is “what do we do better”.

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Anyone who has read the book The Chimp Paradox will be aware that one of the lessons that the book imparts, is that focusing on ‘the process’ is more important than the result. As that is something you can control. ‘The result’ you cannot. In a similar mind, both the players and coaching staff at the Tigers will be focusing more on their performance levels recently, rather than being carried away with the results they have been getting.

As mentioned, in recent weeks the Tigers have managed to pull off thrilling victories from the jaws of defeat against Bristol and Connacht. That is, despite their performances not being at their best. However, no doubt the coaches and players will attest that ‘finding a way to win’ is a sign of a well-performing team. Finding answers to difficult questions posed is a great quality to have, and one that all top performers have in their arsenal.

It also attests that whilst some of the fundamentals of playing rugby; like kicking, passing, or attacking structure may not be where they want them to be. Being mindful of their fitness levels and holding onto their ‘never say die attitude’ are characteristics of a high-performing group.

Tigers fans – Any need to worry?

The important thing to remember here is that whilst Tigers may not be performing quite at the levels previously seen, they are still producing rather good moments from their recent performances. Since playing Bordeaux away, bonus points were secured in the two victories against Connacht in Europe, as well as in the win at home to the Newcastle Falcons in the rain. That game also saw the Tigers keeping the Falcons out with no points conceded.

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Even in their first loss this season, away at Wasps, they still picked up a losing bonus point; coming away from that fixture with a feeling they could and should have won, despite putting in their worst performance of the season so far.

Put simply, if this is Tigers not playing well, the rest of the league should be mindful of what they are capable of when they do hit full gear.

Overall, whilst Tigers may not be performing quite at the levels they have previously, they are still operating at an extremely high level. Winning games of rugby consistently demonstrates that naturally. To answer the question of what is more important ‘the performance or the result’, Leicester will say the performance. Yet to keep winning games of rugby when you are under pressure, is a superb trait to have. It buys you time to work on bringing your performances up, especially in such a results-driven environment of professional rugby union.

Tigers are well aware that they are still a work in progress as a squad and as a team. And that they have a lot to keep learning (despite their results suggesting they are much more advanced). The pleasing element for Tigers’ supporters to remember though is, that whilst they are still learning and still somewhat of a work in progress; remember, they are top of the league domestically, have qualified for Europe in top position, and have only lost one game all season.

If this is what ‘struggling to hit top gear’ looks like, beware the league if and when they actually fully hit their straps!

 

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