Last Saturday saw the opening weekend of the Gallagher Premiership season, with champions Leicester Tigers’ title defence beginning with a trip to Sandy Park to take on Exeter Chiefs. The fixture saw the Tigers go down to a 24-20 defeat, with the Chiefs winning with the clock in the red. So what can we make of the East-Midlands side and why did they lose the game?
Leicester Tigers’ Title Defence will Start Slowly
Disappointment of Losing
The main takeaway from the first game of the Tigers’ title defence was the disappointment of the defeat itself. Leicester have tended not to lose very often over the last year, with 20 league wins recorded from 24 games last season. This allowed them to hold the Premiership top spot for all 24 rounds, setting a record in the process, before ultimately winning the Premiership trophy. As a result, losing games of rugby comes as a bit of a shock to the East-Midlands side who have learned to make themselves exceptionally hard to beat.
Linked into the loss was the nature of the defeat itself. Tigers made a habit last season of winning games from the jaws of defeat, with thrilling last-minute winning moments. For example the Penalty Try at home to Saracens, or the Guy Porter score at Bristol and Hosea Saumaki defying the touchline away at Connacht in the European Champions Cup. Losing a game with the clock in the red was unusual territory for Leicester and one they would rather not repeat.
The commencement of Leicester Tigers’ title defence saw the Champions lose a game they probably should have won. The side were three points in front, approaching the final minute with a free-kick won at a scrum. From that position, the Tigers would have backed themselves to have seen the game out, especially given the experience on the pitch in the form of Jimmy Gopperth, Richard Wigglesworth and Hanro Liebenberg. To have not done so will be a real kick in the teeth for the side, and one they will no doubt analyse heavily to ensure no repeat.
Performance not at Usual Standards
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) September 10, 2022
A surprising feature of last Saturday’s fixture was the performance of the Tigers. Leicester have prided themselves on making sure they get their performances right, for a positive result to follow. Instead, Saturday saw the champions play nowhere near their best. Of the four quarters in the game, Leicester can only claim that they won one – the third where they roared back into the game and clawed their way into the lead.
Otherwise, Leicester lost the second and fourth quarters and shared the spoils in the opening twenty minutes. As a result, it is hard for any side to win games of rugby when they are under the pump so much, even a champion side like Leicester.
In addition, the Tigers’ title defence got off to a stodgy start because, unlike last season, Leicester just did not complete the basics well enough. Tigers became champions for numerous reasons, but the key to their success was being better at the fundamentals of rugby than anyone else. This allowed them to keep their error count to very low levels, making it much harder for any opposition side to capitalise and get ahead of Leicester. Saturday however, saw kicks out on the full, sloppy penalties given away, not claiming restarts properly, poor goal-line dropouts, and a clunky line out.
Leicester managed to tick off quite a few over the course of the 80 minutes, and it ensured they put themselves under pressure repeatedly, whilst surrendering any control they might have in the game. If Tigers had tidied up just half of these errors, they would have likely won the game. The flip side of course is that these are all things they can control, with a focus on ensuring these are returned to a high standard for next weekend v Newcastle Falcons.
Leicester Tigers’ Form
Leicester went into the game off the back of two pre-season victories against Jersey Reds and Newcastle Falcons alike, with positive performances seen in both games. Whilst hard to judge friendlies, in both encounters Tigers showed glimpses of their ambition to expand their game plan, with more moves playing off twelve, and an intent to get the ball wider and quicker.
Indeed the signing of Jimmy Gopperth has been seen as a sign that the Tigers wish to have the option of a “double-pivot” in the midfield, with Gopperth combining with Freddie Burns at Fly-Half, and Handre Pollard in the future, to provide another playing style.
Game Plan Issues
Instead, however, the Tigers resorted to an extreme version of last year’s game plan, with limited joy. Last season Tigers’ success was built upon a strong defence, and physicality in the forwards punching holes for their attack to flourish, with a resolute and clever kicking game to deliver territory and game control. All three elements were equally important, providing strong balance for Leicester.
— Telegraph Rugby (@TelegraphRugby) September 13, 2022
Last Saturday however saw Leicester kick heavily, as the Tigers recorded the lowest running metres and the highest kicking metres across all the teams in the first round of games. The consequence of kicking so much was that Leicester surrendered a key element of their strength – their forward pack.
It is hard for their forwards to exert their dominance and punch holes in the opposition defence if they do not have the ball. However, that is what happened. As a result, the combination of getting the balance of their kicking strategy wrong, and the number of unforced errors, meant that the Tigers had zero control of the game and foothold to build any momentum.
In addition, the Tigers showcased little attacking capabilities of their own. Whether that was by design or a result of the players on the pitch not organising properly, it is hard to say without being in the inner sanctum.
However, on observation, Leicester had very little cohesion and little ambition in attack. Furthermore on many occasions in the game, they had such a poor attacking shape that they had to kick to avoid further trouble. Next weekend at home to Falcons, will determine whether Saturday was an aberration or a feature of what is to come this season in Tiger’s title defence.
Whilst their game plan contributed towards why the Tigers’ title defence got off to a slow start, Leicester compounded that by then executing the strategy poorly. It was not just the amount of kicks made, but the lack of thought that went into them. To watch Tigers last year, you would have seen a large amount of kicking, however, combined with a variety in the types of kicks made, led by the clever rugby brain of George Ford.
The aim is to manipulate the backfield defence, move them around and create space to place intelligent kicks and put the opposition under pressure. Overall, Saturday saw Leicester not do that, hence why they became easy to defend against ensuring one of their major strengths was neutralised by an organised Exeter side.
Leicester Tigers did well with kicks at the beginning
To be fair to Leicester, they did very their kicks in the first half well, mainly down to having Freddie Burns as their fly-half for much of the half. Burns demonstrated a range of different kicks, varying both length and type, allowing Leicester to grow into the game and look comfortable at the end of the first quarter.
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) September 12, 2022
However, when he was off the field, for ten minutes initially because of a yellow card, and then for the whole of the second half because of a head injury, Leicester under the game management of Jimmy Gopperth descended into the same kick being made repeatedly and lost their variety.
On a rare occasion when Gopperth changed his kick and found grass, Tigers were able to put pressure on Exeter and earned a try from a Dan Cole charge down leading to captain Hanro Liebenberg to run in under the posts. Whilst it is not fair to pin the blame on one person, Gopperth does need to show improvement dramatically in this area, given the importance Leicester holds to it.
All is not lost – positives to take
Despite Tigers’ title defence getting off to a tough start and the stodgy performance, there are positives for Leicester. Fine margins separate winning and losing; whilst well off their best, they were not far off winning the game. In addition, a lot of the issues seen are easily fixable and would see instant improvements.
The Tigers’ defence was also very impressive, both in the number of tackles completed and how well they defended the gain line. Lastly, Leicester will take heart from almost winning a game in which they did not play well. They went to a tough venue against tough opponents and almost came away with a victory despite a subpar performance.
Overall, whilst Leicester will be disappointed in numerous ways from Saturday’s game, it does show they still will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
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