Leicester Tigers’ Defensive Concerns

Tigers' Defensive Concerns

Tigers’ defensive concerns have come under pressure this season. Should the side should be worried?

Leicester Tigers’ title triumph last season was based upon numerous factors, chief amongst which was their supreme defence which was the best in the Premiership by far. Last season they conceded only 52 tries from their 24 league games on the way to their 11th Premiership title. This season though, Leicester Tigers’ defensive concerns are beginning to rise. After 4 rounds of the Gallagher Premiership, they have let in 16 tries.

This past weekend saw the Champions humbled by Saracens – the team they defeated in the final – 51 points to 18, with Sarries running in seven tries of their own. This article looks at the Tigers’ defensive concerns and if the side needs to be worried at this early stage.


Leicester came into the game off the back of an impressive 41-21 win over local-rivals Northampton Saints, which in turn had followed a 36-21 home win over Newcastle Falcons and an opening day defeat at Exeter Chiefs, 24-20. Tigers’ defensive concerns were hinted at in their victory over Northampton. In the first quarter of the game, Saints had crossed Leicester’s try-line three times. However, only two tries were awarded. Nevertheless, their threat was all to see. Whilst Tigers tightened up as the game progressed, it would not have gone unnoticed by opposition teams how easily Northampton broke through Leicester’s previously watertight defence.

Tigers’ defensive concerns were also hinted at in their first two fixtures of the season. Against Exeter on the opening weekend, Leicester’s defence held firm for the majority of the game, as their hosts put them under severe pressure. However, in the final 90 seconds of the game, Leicester’s defence eventually buckled as Exeter were able to get over the gain-line with almost every carry. Tiger’s defence is centred around stopping the opposition at source and winning that gain-line collision. Tiredness is a mitigant as to why Exeter was able to win this battle at a crucial point. However, given the pride Leicester has in their fitness, this will still be a concern.

Against Newcastle, they again conceded three tries, one of which was an error caused by Ben Youngs fumbling the ball rather than Falcons’ attacking play. Nevertheless, it still will be a concern to Leicester that in a 20-minute spell in the first half, Newcastle was able to put Tigers under pressure and ultimately come away with two tries. This is in contrast to last season, where Leicester was able to soak up large periods of pressure and not concede at all. In addition, despite coming very close to having a 100% record after the first three rounds, Tigers’ defensive concerns will not be aided by the fact they had conceded over 20 points in every fixture, prior to shipping a further 51 to Saracens. Quite simply, it is harder to win games when shipping that many points.

What has changed?

Fundamentally, so far there has been a drop-off in Leicester’s defence compared to last season, fuelling Tigers’ defensive concerns. The Champions have gone from conceding just over two tries per game, to now four on average. Last season they conceded just over 18 points per game in the regular league season, to now just under 30. Now, given the small sample size and it still being early in the season, conclusions cannot be drawn too firmly at this stage. These numbers will be troubling Head Coach Steve Borthwick though and his coaching side as they defend their title. So, what are the reasons why Tigers’ defensive concerns are becoming more of an issue?

Individual Errors

A good place to start is to look at the players themselves. Leicester’s players have impressed throughout their time under the stewardship of Borthwick. One of the numerous problems Borthwick inherited when he joined the club in 2020 was Leicester’s leaky defence, which had become accustomed to shipping tries and points all too easily. Under first Mike Ford and then Kevin Sinfield, Tigers’ defensive concerns have been pushed to the background as they have squeezed and pressured teams into submission.

One of the hallmarks of Leicester under both defensive coaches was how each player improved their own game and took responsibility to ensure they did not miss a tackle, no matter what situation they faced. this season though, what has crept into Leicester’s game has been an increase in individual errors through missed tackles at key moments, that have let opposition teams through. This was shown up at Saracens where their tackle success was 83.46%, compared to last season’s average of 87%. Whilst this is not a big difference, it only takes one error to let the opposition through the defensive line and run into the open field at speed.

Whilst we look at other challenges fuelling Tigers’ defensive concerns, the main starting point must look at each individual player. You can have whatever systems in place you like, but if individuals do not make their tackles and stop the attacking threat at source, then opposition teams are more likely to have success against them. This will be a message that will no doubt be being drummed into the players at Oval Park this week.

Personnel Issues

Another key reason why Tigers’ defensive concerns are becoming more of an issue so far this season, is that they are faced with several personnel challenges. Possibly more so than other teams. Leicester saw key members of their title-winning team leave in the summer, including George Ford, Ellis Genge and Matius Moroni. From a defensive standpoint, losing Moroni was a big loss. Not only was he a terrific tackler, but he was also a very strong organiser and a vital communicator in ensuring everyone was in the right place. Losing him has left a big void. It has also meant that Leicester has had to integrate key signings into their systems, something that takes time for relationships to build.

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Leicester are also under pressure due to injuries – Dan Kelly is still out after his hamstring injury, with fellow centres Guy Porter and Matt Scott also rumoured to have injuries keeping them on the sidelines. All three along with Moroni were central to Leicester’s defence, with all being defensive organisers also. To lose one can be managed, but to lose four is always going to cause an issue and that is a key reason for Tigers’ defensive concerns currently.

Leicester are also impacted by having five players away on England Summer duty and Tommy Reffell away with Wales, meaning all returned late and missed pre-season friendlies. That has meant they have had to be blooded back in during the league season, which is not ideal. Jasper Wiese and Julian Montoya are also away due to the Rugby Championship, putting pressure on their stand-ins who are having to play more than desired. All these elements have meant that Leicester are having to integrate more players into their system, ensuring that there are a lot more untested and new combinations playing each week. This is putting pressure on the defensive organisation and contributing to Tigers’ defensive concerns. In time these will improve, however, this is an area that opposition teams will look to exploit.


What the games have shown is that opposition teams have adapted to how Leicester defended last season and come up with plans to get around the systems Tigers have. Whilst Leicester’s systems have not become bad overnight, they do need to be looked at and adapted if necessary. One of Leicester’s targets for this season was to look to evolve and improve their attacking play. However, their defensive work may need to be revisited and adapted. One bad game does not need a system reset, but Leicester need to look to make subtle changes to combat the strategies that opposition teams are working on, that are so far proving to have success against them.

Should Leicester be worried?

At this stage, no. They are only four rounds in and have already played three of the toughest away trips in the league. Leicester will soon face a block of fixtures that should prove more to their liking. In addition, the more time their new signings, returning injured players and internationals have training and playing alongside each other, will mean new relationships and combinations can be forged. This will ensure greater connectivity in their defensive systems – something that currently they just do not have.

It is also worth noting that Exeter are a resurgent beast this season whilst Saracens have developed their gameplan completely over the summer and played almost perfect rugby over the weekend. Newcastle Falcons under Dave Walder have taken their attacking game to another level, whilst Northampton Saints possess one of the best attacking games in the league. Whilst this does not absolve Leicester, it does provide mitigation to them.

There is plenty of room for improvement, however Tigers’ defensive concerns should not prove too much of an issue for long.

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