Leicester Tigers’ play-off challenge commences

Leicester Tigers' play-off challenge
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Leicester Tigers’ play-off challenge begins this weekend as they entertain local rivals Northampton Saints at Mattioli Woods Welford Road in the semi-finals of the play-offs. Tigers go into the contest having finished top of the Premiership’s regular season with 20 wins from 24 games.

With this in mind, how are they looking as they enter the play-offs, their first experience of being involved at this stage of the season since their last appearance in 2017 in their defeat to Wasps?

For starters, there are numerous positives that Tigers can take as they prepare for the crunch game on Saturday. The reality is that the play-offs are a lottery and are one-off games, so reading too much into these high points is a dangerous game. However, they are pointers that can give Tigers confidence and a slight edge as they go into the fixture.

Overall Season Record

Leicester go into the play-offs in as good a shape as they can be. As mentioned they go into this crucial period having finished top of the league, securing a record points total of 94 points. Albeit this was after 24 games rather than the previous 22. Tigers also hold the record of being the first side to go the whole season occupying the top position. An incredible feat given the youth of the squad and how early it is in their development. It is worth noting that this is an achievement that even the great Leicester Tigers sides under Martin Johnson did not obtain, another reason for it to be celebrated.

Tigers also finished the season with fourteen bonus points to their name. A vast improvement on their previous season’s tally of eight. Given only two of those bonus points were in losing efforts, it means that twelve of their 20 victories came after four or more tries were scored. These numbers reflect the dominance that Leicester have had over the course of the league and the consistency they have shown throughout. Whilst in the lottery of the play-offs they do not count for much, they do provide the playing group with a high degree of confidence that Leicester Tigers’ Play-off challenge can be overcome.

Home Advantage

A crucial factor that needs to be considered when looking ahead to the weekend is the location of where the game will be played. Tigers have been simply awesome all season when playing in front of their own fans. Twelve home league games played, twelve victories secured. Of those twelve wins, eight came with an additional bonus point. Their only defeat at home was in Europe against eventual runners-up Leinster, and even then Tigers came away from the game feeling they should have won it.

Leicester are definitely a side that sees a clear benefit from playing in front of their home supporters, especially after the pandemic meant they had to stay at home. Not only do they enjoy the familiarity of their own space, but they also benefit from playing in front of large crowds week in and week out. Especially so in a ground where the atmosphere has returned back to being raucous and supportive towards their own side. Tiger’s play-off challenge is a formidable one, however, given their semi-final doubling up as an East-Midlands derby, having that vociferous home support behind the side might be a crucial point of difference.

Miserly in Defence

What has underpinned Leicester’s strong season has been their superb defence, which has provided the bedrock for those 20 league victories. Tigers have shown that it is hard to win games of rugby if you are leaking tries just as quickly as you are scoring them. Tigers’ defence has been a foundation of their resurgence under Head Coach Steve Borthwick, with a clear improvement seen last season under previous Coach Mike Ford. Since rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield joined the club in the summer, Tigers have taken this part of their game to a new level, with the results clear to see.

Tigers finished the regular season top of the defence league table as well as the regular one, having only conceded 52 tries across their 24 games. Not only are the raw numbers stacked up, but the evidence can be seen visually across the season. Tigers combine two aspects to their strong defence – physicality and organisation. Tigers do not just tackle with their defence, but they hit and hit hard. Forcing gain runners back is a big feature, stopping opposition teams at source and not allowing them to gain momentum. In addition, their strong organisation and communication mean very rarely are they pulled apart and cut open. It has meant that even against opponents such as Quins and Bristol who are well known for their expansive playing style, Leicester have still made sure they have shut them out.

All this will be crucial if Leicester Tigers’ play-off challenge is to be extended to include the final on 18 June. Their opponents Northampton Saints go into the fixture as the league’s top try-scorers with 99 to their name. Saints play a style of rugby that is great to watch, with a backline jampacked with talent and skill. They will test Tigers’ defence all afternoon. Leicester know that they will need to be at their very best if they are to shut Saints down and stop them playing their brand of free-flowing rugby.

Tigers Stuttering Slightly?

Leicester enter the play-offs with plenty of positives, but they also have some concerns of their own. Whilst Tigers won their last two league games of the season away at Newcastle Falcons and at home to Wasps, both came with a disjointed performance with multiple errors seen. Handling errors, dropped balls and a general lack of cohesion and fluidity in their play were the main features of both games. As a result, Tigers never really seemed to get a firm grip of either game, or start putting any points on the scoreboard until the final quarter.

Tigers will point to the fact that at this stage of the season, the result is what matters most. Certainly, no one will be complaining if Tigers win the trophy on the 18th even when not playing well. In addition, both their opponents contributed to the disjointed nature by researching and implementing a game plan that was designed to disrupt Tigers’ rhythm and not allow them to gain any momentum – both teams should be applauded for doing so. However Leicester will be slightly concerned that whilst they enter the play-offs in a strong position, they also do so with potentially some question marks over their form.

Lack of Big-Game Experience?

Leicester’s form all season has been consistently strong, and they have been impressive throughout. However, the reality is that this is still a young group, with plenty of players at the very start of their careers. Whilst many of these are now Tigers regulars – Freddie Steward, Dan Kelly, Ollie Chessum to name just three, and racking up the appearances for the club, they are still inexperienced in overall rugby terms. The playing group as well has also only played two of what can be classified as “big games” at Leicester. They are the Challenge Cup Final last year against Montpellier and this year’s Champions Cup Quarter-Final against Leinster, both of which they lost.

What this means is that this group is still undergoing its rugby education, it is still learning about how to prepare for these games and go through the furnace and the intensity that these types of games bring. More importantly, it is still learning the know-how and experience of winning these games. The group needs a big game win under its belt to take it forward, however, getting that first one is the hardest test of all. Tigers are helped by the senior members of their squad, who have got that big-game experience from International duties. Leicester Tigers’ play-off challenge rests on these players stepping up when they are needed most, and so the likes of Ellis Genge, George Ford and Hanro Liebenberg will carry a lot of responsibility at the weekend.

Overall Leicester Tigers’ play-off challenge commences with the team in a good position to tackle this particularly tough point of the season. Whilst the nature of the play-offs and their semi-final being a fierce local derby against Northampton makes Saturday even more of a lottery where form and statistics matter little. However, their consistency all season, and the strong performance metrics seen within those games, mean they can go into Saturday afternoon with confidence and ready to take on that challenge.