Youthful Tigers Fall Short – Just!

Youthful Tigers fall short
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The dust has now settled on a bruising encounter at the Stonex Stadium last weekend after league-leaders Leicester Tigers traveled to face second-placed Saracens. The Leicester v Saracens rivalry is one that has seen numerous big clashes over the years, with last Saturday being no different. On this occasion, it was Saracens that came away the victors, as the game saw a youthful Tigers fall short, with the home team recording a 34-27 victory.

Borthwick Rings Surprising Selections

Ahead of the game, Leicester fans were trying to predict what team Head Coach Steve Borthwick would select. A task made almost impossible given how tightly Borthwick keeps his cards close to his chest. In the end, Borthwick threw somewhat of a curveball with nine changes made from the team selected from the previous week’s victory against Gloucester, with George Ford and Ollie Chessum returning to action after being released from England duty. In addition, Kini Murimurivalu and Matías Moroni came back into the starting 15 after injury. As a result, it was somewhat of a brand new team that took the field with inexperienced combinations.

The ages of the team selected, especially in the pack was also something that stood out. Tigers had an average age in the front row of under 22, with James Whitcombe, Nic Dolly and Joe Heyes all starting. In the back row, Tigers started with Chessum, Tommy Reffell and George Martin giving an average age of 21. Coming against such an experienced pack as the one selected by Saracens, this was always going to be a test for Tigers, and one they only just came short in. In the fallout of the game, some observers were questioning why that team was selected.

While Saturday saw a youthful Tigers fall short, this was not the first time that Borthwick had rang the changes for this particular fixture.  In the corresponding home fixture back in October, he had done exactly the same, picking a 23 that was not one that had been predicted, and using different combinations compared to previous games. It seems that he has a penchant for deliberately mixing up his team for these particular opponents.  In review, there are a few good reasons that lay behind why Borthwick does so.

Borthwick Throws a Curve Ball

The first possible reason why Borthwick made so many changes is to try and confuse the opposition. There is nothing more annoying for a team than making all your plans in training during the week for a specific opposition, to only find they were all in vain. Given the opposition they were up against, it is not a surprise to see Borthwick throw a curveball to try and disrupt Saracens’ planning. Whilst it would probably have little impact, it is enough of an annoyance to them that it would be worth doing. Sport is made up of little moments or marginal gains coming together to create a wider picture, therefore it is not a surprise to see someone like Borthwick use such a tactic to try and find any advantage, no matter how small.

Keeping Powder Dry

There is an awful lot of rugby still to be played, we are only in March after all. However, it is not outrageous to suggest that the Premiership Final could be contested between these two sides. Both currently occupy the top two spots in the table, with both looking good to secure their home semi-finals in the play-offs. Given both teams’ very strong home records, you can see why people are drawn to this conclusion. It is with that thought process in mind that helps give an idea as to what Borthwick has been thinking in regards to team selection.

Borthwick has identified that Saracens are probably the team to beat, and that they are also the team that, if you follow the trend, Tigers could be facing in a possible final. As a result, it is quite possible that Borthwick does not want to fully show his hand at this stage, and hold his cards close to his chest as to not reveal his strategy. As a result, if the two teams did meet up again, he and his team have a better read of Saracens yet they do not have a full experience of playing Leicester. It is not a bad idea to hold back certain tactics or ace cards, especially when last weekend could be considered somewhat of a free hit for Tigers, given where they are in the league.

Psychological Games from Borthwick

Following on from the points made above, it should also be remembered that Borthwick is a man that loves to play 4d chess, and usually has plans that are three or four steps ahead of anyone else’s thinking. He also likes to have psychological mind games with opponents. Indeed he was at it in the build-up to last weekend as he constantly referred to Saracens as being the best team in the land, even if they sit a fair way behind Leicester in the table. It is with this in mind that Borthwick made the selections he did.

While Borthwick saw a youthful Tigers fall short, he also knows that the psychological effect of any defeat is negligible. This is due to the team he selected in both games against Saracens is far from the 23 that he would pick in any hypothetical final. It therefore means that his team will not carry any emotional baggage if they are to play again this season, with honours even from both games. If he had played his strongest 23 available to him in both games and had lost, there is a risk that Tigers would start any possible future game at a slight psychological disadvantage. That is now taken away. If the two teams do meet up again, Borthwick has made the two completed fixtures almost meaningless, with neither having a bearing on the future. Again, these are minor details, but Borthwick thrives on finding and exploiting these if he can see an advantage of doing so.

Testing his Youngsters

Whilst Saturday saw his youthful Tigers fall short, Borthwick will also have been pleased by how his youngsters stood up to the test posed by a tough Saracens team. It is this test that Borthwick wanted and played a part in his thinking behind that selection for last weekend and for the previous fixture at Welford Road, as well as away at Bordeaux in the Champions Cup. It is one thing for his youngsters to play well when playing alongside the likes of Julian Montoya, Hanro Liebenberg and Jasper Wiese, it is another when they are not available and they have to find a way through themselves. Borthwick will have used these games to really test his youngsters, as well as help aid them in their own development. No matter the result, they will have learned a huge amount and helped them become better players.

Aftermath and future markers

In the aftermath of Saturday’s game, there were a fair few people suggesting that the victory for Saracens had put a marker down for any future game. It is hard to see what relevance any markers from Saturday can have given the large number of different variables in place. As mentioned above, team selection will be completely different for both teams, and as above, probably more so for Tigers. The pitch will be on grass, not artificial, with the surroundings also going to be different. Therefore, any conclusions drawn must be taken with a pinch of salt as so much would be different.

More importantly, we are only in March. There is a huge amount of rugby still to be played, with injuries, illness and losses of form still to come into play. Added to this, this is one the closest Premierships in a long while, with teams beating each other throughout. As a result, whilst the final points towards being contested by Leicester and Saracens, it is nowhere near a definite, with numerous good teams also wanting to have a say. Last weekend saw a youthful Tigers fall short, however, lessons will no doubt be taken from it to help them in the long run. If the teams do meet up again, a fearsome contest will be seen!

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