Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Where have all the young players gone?

Most of the headlines focused on the wind and the scaffolding.  This was the first Tigers game to be abandoned that I can remember, and at 70 minutes extremely close to the finish; the lack of bonus point has seemingly condemned us to be knocked out from the competition.  With 10 minutes to go a win was surely too far but a simple seven point try, and Tigers were attacking a disorganized Quins defence when the whistle blew, would have secured that point.

It seems that Quins will escape without an RFU or PRL penalty for their unsafe ground but that was not what caught my eye.  What I spotted was the lack of young players in the team.  Using an old fashioned definition of a young player as an "under 23" we started with only 4 (Terrence Hepetema, Tom Bristow, Fraser Balmain and Pablo Matera) players born after September 1st 1990.

This got me thinking "How often do we actually play young players, and how often does everyone else?"

So I looked it up.  Using the number of minutes played from I divided them into the total minutes played over the various different tournaments.

Obviously Perry Humphreys does have a Date of Birth but I couldn't find it.  Any help from readers is much appreciated.

In isolation that doesn't show us much.  We play youngsters much more in the LV Cup than the other tournaments (even with fewer against Quins) and in the Heineken Cup we make no pretenses and pick the best players only.

So what does everyone else do?  I have the above set up for every club but reproducing it would take up far too much room, so instead lets look at just the raw totals for the three main leagues:

Team U23 Mins % League
1 Llanelli 32.41%
2 Ospreys 31.97%
3 Newport 31.28%
4 Cardiff 28.96%
5 Connacht 28.61%
6 Wasps 25.24%
7 Toulouse 24.55%
8 Ulster 23.55%
9 Bath 21.32%
10 Perpignan 20.23%
11 Edinburgh 19.77%
12 Harlequins 19.74%
13 Saracens 19.49%
14 Sale 18.70%
15 Leinster 17.10%
16 Northampton 16.61%
17 Bordeaux-Begles 16.44%
18 Biarritz 15.60%
19 Glasgow 15.48%
20 Gloucester 14.82%
21 Stade Francais 14.62%
22 Zebre 14.49%
23 Exeter 14.14%
24 Worcester 12.51%
25 Bayonne 12.14%
26 Munster 11.77%
27 London Irish 11.53%
28 Treviso 10.52%
29 Newcastle 9.67%
30 Grenoble 9.03%
31 Montpellier 8.47%
32 Clermont 6.83%
33 Brive 6.52%
34 Leicester 5.28%
35 Toulon 4.83%
36 Racing 4.62%
37 Castres 2.90%
38 Oyonnax 0.03%

Suddenly it doesn't look so good.  With only the 4 French sides below us the argument that we don't play youngsters is clearly solid.  Compared to our peers we don't.  The Heineken Cup numbers are starker still.

Team U23 Mins % HC
1 Llanelli 38.85%
2 Connacht 31.06%
3 Ospreys 27.83%
4 Perpignan 23.47%
5 Cardiff 22.33%
6 Saracens 21.08%
7 Ulster 19.71%
8 Harlequins 19.44%
9 Gloucester 19.09%
10 Edinburgh 18.88%
11 Exeter 17.33%
12 Toulouse 16.64%
13 Northampton 15.91%
14 Treviso 14.18%
15 Zebre 13.54%
16 Montpellier 13.10%
17 Leinster 10.21%
18 Glasgow 9.15%
19 Castres 5.29%
20 Racing 4.90%
21 Toulon 4.89%
22 Munster 4.51%
23 Clermont 2.50%
24 Leicester 2.14%

Even if Manu Tuilagi had been fit and played every minute of the European campaign the numbers would only improve to 8.81%, again the case that compared to our peers youngsters don't play is sound.

Noticeably the 3 sides directly above us are 3 of the sides with a home quarter final.  If we'd have won against Ulster the 4 sides with the fewest young players would have all been the most succesful.  This does lead us to the point that we're in this to win not give youth a chance.  If we were top of the league and had a home semi-final then this wouldn't be an issue.

But we aren't top of league, we don't have a home quarter final, so this is an issue.

Economics play a part.  Llanelli don't make almost 40% of their team under 23 purely by choice, the fact that they can't afford to sign in many experienced pros forces them to play their younger players.

Similarly two of France's best sides for playing young players are Stade Francais and Perpignan.  Both have suffered from relative financial collapses in recent times and have been forced to blood more youth.  In Stade's case this has worked fantastically as they go into the 6 Nations break top of the Top 14. 

By the same measure Bath have managed to attract talents like George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson.  All were signed as first team players and they make up over 82% of minutes given to under 23s.  They aren't doing it because of some "give youth a chance" initiative but because their good players they've signed happen to be young.

At a recent open forum Cockerill declared that he wants to bring through players as much as anyone else, but only when they deserve it.  He put it more succinctly when he said "I'm not anti-young players, I'm anti-crap players".

There is an idea that Cockerill doesn't "blood" players, he picks the best ones.  That means that when Manu Tuilagi was our best centre at 19 he played every week, when George Ford was our second best fly half at 18 he covered for Flood and when Ben Youngs was our best scrum half at 19 he played too, but that he won't give players a chance if he doesn't rate them.

The numbers show that in all competitions Tigers have used 17 players under 23, only Gloucester (20) and Quins (18) have more.  But only 6 of those have made it into a matchday squad in the Premiership and those 6 have only played 761 minutes compared to the European average of almost 2,500 minutes.
The problem seems to be hanging on to the players as they get older.  Tigers have given 6 players born in 1994 (plus probably Humphreys) a run in the First XV this season, the most in Europe, but we have none from 1990 and only 3 from 1991.  Quins on the other hand have picked more "under 23s" but 10 of their 19 were born in either 1990 or 1991.

This missing generation is Andy Forsyth, Jimmy Stevens and Matt Everard.  Everard was released as not good enough; his slowly eroding game time at Wasps suggests this was the correct call, as unpopular as it was at the time.  But Forsyth and Stevens were rumoured to have been offered contracts and declined them.  

This might seem counter intuitive but does the Academy work too well?  It generates stacks of 18 year olds that can play first team rugby to the point that often we forget how young our players are and expect them to be further along as they slowly progress from promising 18 year old to 23 year old ready to play a serious part in the campaign.

During those 5 years the players become frustrated and too many of them are leaving.  Forsyth was a case in point, at the same age Dan Hipkiss and Matt Smith had played significantly less first team rugby than him, so it seems wrong to blame his leaving on Cockerill for not picking him, but clearly he was frustrated and wanted to play regularly. 

So what can be done to change that?  The long term trends are towards players breaking through at younger ages.  Whilst in the past there were outliers such as Paul Dodge (who if he made his debut today would have been born in 1997) since professionalism there has been a march towards younger players.  

This runs counter to ideas espoused by Cockerill at the recent open forum that as physicality increases players need longer to come through, especially in the tight 5.  Certainly in the front row there is growing evidence that the human body cannot stand the forces involved until it is 22 or 23 without succumbing to injury.  Anecdotal comparisons of Dan Cole with Alex Corbiseiro suggest this has some basis.

This season Tigers have made much greater use of the loan market than in previous years.  We have seen the top prospects go to Nottingham as usual, for a final polish and high quality game time, but we have also seen three young forwards go to Doncaster to learn the pressures of competitive rugby in what is a red hot title race, we have two forwards go to Coventry (so far for a single game) and seen three young players feature for Loughborough Students all in the increasingly professional National League One. 

Quins have used loans to sides like Esher, Ealing, Richmond and London Scottish to great effect as players get to play and the coaches get to see them in the competitive and often hostile environments they will face in the First XV.

There has been much anxiousness on some forums that players such as Catchpole or Purdy have barely featured and that they might be the next out of the door.  Any sane analysis of young players across Europe sees that attitude as exactly the problem of placing too much pressure on players too soon.  Both the two cited were born in 1994, Europe wide only 15 players born in 1994 have featured for their clubs in League action.  

Gael Fickou and Hallam Amos have already won international caps and Anthony Watson will surely join them soon.  The vast majority of players make their debuts in their first year out of the Under 20 set up, which means that the likes of Catchpole and Purdy should be in no rush.

No one can argue that Tigers are using young players in any great numbers.  The lack of examples in the difficult 20-23 age bracket produces a lack of confidence of fans in the system, increasing the fears that another generation of talent will have to fail to make it before changes are made.  Whether it is Cockerill as selector or the academy and scouting network not producing the players somewhere the production line has stalled.

Some changes have been made already, but do they go far enough?

Friday, 24 January 2014

Champion v Champion in Cup Battle

After the intensity and disappointment of last week's match  Tigers take a step down this weekend as they travel to the Stoop to face Harlequins.  Last year Harlequins won the LV Cup with Tigers taking the Premiership, the year before it was vice versa with Harlequins winning a first Premiership and Tigers taking the Cup.

Since league rugby began in 1987 Tigers have taken on Quins 28 times in competitive games at the Stoop, winning 20, losing 8 and drawing 1.  We have a mirror image at home with 20 wins and 9 losses.  The recent form has not been so good as Quins have 4 of the last 5 meetings.  The only Tigers win?  Last season's Premiership semi final.

Tigers make 14 changes from the defeat to Ulster as they seek to rest the wounded, give chances to the fringe players and judiciously blood a small amount of youth.  Frenchman David Mele cements his burgeoning reputation at the club by having the honour of the captaincy. 

Tom Bristow a summer signing from London Welsh makes his first start for the club as he is joined by Rob Hawkins, a first start this season, and Fraser Balmain in the front row.  Harry Thacker, so impressive in the first tranche of games, misses out with an injured ankle.  19 year old Italian Tiziano Pasquali backs up tighthead with experienced duo George Chuter and Boris Stankovich cover the other two.

Steve Mafi returns to the starting line up at the relatively unfamiliar position of lock.  With Joe Cain and Tom Price out with injuries he is joined by Sebastian De Chaves in the First XV and Harry Wells on the bench.  

The back row sees impressive Argentinean flanker Pablo Matera make his second start for the club.  Matera has struggled for fluency since his arrival being unavailable for 7 of the 13 games since his October arrival due to international commitments and registration issues in Europe.  From now on he is available for every game, injuries willing, so hopefully will use the next two weeks to make an unanswerable case for inclusion in the Premiership games next month.

Thomas Waldrom, in his first appearance since announcing his summer departure to Exeter, starts at 8 with Michael Noone on the blindside.  On the bench there is a potential debut for openside flanker Will Owen, an England U-18 international.

Joining captain Mele at half back is Ryan Lamb.  The "mercurial" fly half has fallen down the pecking order in recent times and I am surprised to see him here in place of Owen Williams.  The backs cannot be said to be blooding any youth as Scott Hamilton, Matt Smith, Adam Thompstone, Terrence Hepetema join Blaine Scully.  

Scully was looking in great nick before missing November with the USA and could well force his way back into the First XV after the news that Miles Benjamin is back on the long term missing list.

Young backs Scott Steele, Owen Williams and Henry Purdy cover from the bench.

Harlequins are winless in this season's LV Cup and are out to change that after naming a very strong side.  Big money summer signings Paul Sackey and Nick Kennedy both start along dual code international Maurice Fa'asalavu and international tighthead and filmographer Paul Doran-Jones.  Lions winger Ugo Monye is on the bench should the fire power in the first line run short.

Saturday's referee will be Gwyn Morris from Cardiff.  Morris was due to referee Tigers last LV Cup game, away to Worcester, but was replaced at the last minute with Neil Hennessy.  Morris's claim to fame is that he was Sam Warburton and Gareth Bale's P.E. teacher whilst they attended school in Cardiff.

Looking at the sides I would expect Tigers to play a wide game, with good tempo.  There is precious little biff in the pack so the mobile game must be to the fore.  It wouldn't surprise me if it comes down to the goal kicking of Lamb and Botica.

15 Scott Hamilton
14 Blaine Scully
13 Matt Smith
12 Terrence Hepetema
11 Adam Thompstone
10 Ryan Lamb
9 David Mele (c)
1 Tom Bristow
2 Rob Hawkins
3 Fraser Balmain
4 Steve Mafi
5 Sebastian De Chaves
6 Michael Noone
7 Pablo Matera
8 Thomas Waldrom

16 George Chuter
17 Boris Stankovich
18 Tiziano Pasquali
19 Harry Wells
20 Will Owen
21 Scott Steele
22 Owen Williams
23 Henry Purdy

15. Ollie Lindsay-Hague
14. Paul Sackey
13. Harry Sloan
12. Jordan Turner-Hall
11. Tom Williams
10. Ben Botica
9. Karl Dickson (C)

1. Mark Lambert
2. Joe Gray
3. Paul Doran Jones
4. George Merrick
5. Nick Kennedy
6. Joe Trayfoot
7. Maurie Fa'asavalu
8. Tom Guest

16. Nic Mayhew
17. Darryl Marfo
18. Kyle Sinckler
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. James Chisholm
21. Sam Stuart
22. Louis Grimoldby
23. Ugo Monye

Quins Kit
Tigers Kit

Referee: Gwyn Morris (Wales)
Touch Judges: Roy Maybank (England), Nigel Carrick (England)

Sunday, 19 January 2014


Well that was gutting.  25 minutes to go and 10 points up.  A win and we get a home quarter final with all the benefits to the club that brings.  I turned to my mate and said “Just don’t fuck it up” that was all we needed to do.

Ulster are a good side, no question, but the All Blacks they ain’t.  They never really looked like breaking us down in phase play and their only chances had come from Tigers back three failing to deal with garryowens.  Feeding off your opponents mistakes is a classic tactic and one our best teams were more than capable of executing but when you have a 10 point lead against teams like that you just have to not fuck it up.

Nigel Owens interesting interpretation of the ruck and maul gave Tigers nightmares as Ulster seemed much more used to the interpretations of the Pro12 official.  Neutral referees should be the bed rock of professional sport.  Neutral in all aspects.  Obviously partisan supporters cannot ref their own side, and former players should not ref their old teams.

But more subtle is the different nationality referee from the same league such as Welshman Owens refereeing Ulster.  I’m not suggesting that Owens favoured Ulster out of some Celto conspiracy, even I’m not that mental (after the match), but as a referee in their domestic league he will be more exposed to their tactics and Ulster will be more attuned to his idiosyncrasies.  It could also work the other way as he may be more aware of their player’s reputations for certain offences.  This is clearly not a level playing field.

Every time Ulster attacked Tigers gave away a penalty of one type or another, yet when it was our turn with ball in hand getting a penalty was like getting blood from a stone.  They were obviously magnificently disciplined, especially with the off side which they certainly did not transgress at all.  Especially from kicks.  Paragons of virtue.

But at the end of the day we fucked it up.  In the first half Graham Kitchener latched on to Steve Mafi’s pass and sprinted into a chasm in the Ulster defence.  We had to score.  We didn’t.  Kitchener was bundled into touch by the Ulster full back.  We managed to get that 10 point lead principally through three scrum penalties and a hard worked try. 

Ironically it was our own garryown that sculpted the try.  After Flood’s highball was not dealt with Tom Youngs and Anthony Allen made strong yards.  The province never regained their shape and Flood probed a gap with a delicious grubber kick.  Morris grounded for the try despite the illegal attentions of Paddy Jackson’s early tackle.

A ten point lead.  At home.  I can’t remember many collapses that bad full stop, let alone in such a crucial game.  The gap was cut when Tom Youngs was pinged in a ruck.  It was erased when Pienaar charged down Flood and converted his own grounding.  Pienaar charged from Flood’s blindside and caught him unawares after yet another Ulster garryowen.  It was pure sloppiness from Flood combined with terrific workrate from Pienaar.

To rub salt into the deepest wound it was a penalty for offside that cost us the game.  It was clearly offside but to pick that ruck, amongst the several hundred in the game to enforce the law but no others was laughable really.  Ulster had an exact replica off the retreating defender never being on side in the previous Tigers attack.

But we still had chances.  Flood booted a rare penalty awarded to the Tigers in open play a full 70 yards to gain terrific position from a line out with only 5 minutes to go.  We attacked powerfully.  The defence was holding but only just.  Mele was on by now and firing the passes out like a man possessed.  With the line begging Flood steamed onto a Mele pass but could not hold on. 

Tigers had a series of scrums in mid field roughly 30 meters out with only 3 minutes remaining.  A draw was no good so surely Tigers would look to play the ball?  They chose to drive.  Ulster collapsed but Owens only awarded the re-set.  Again we drove; again we powered forward as Ulster went round the side.  Again Owens re-set.  We went again.  We lost the scrum. 

We win two scrums with no reward yet Ulster wins one and gains the crucial penalty.

This was unbelievably frustrating from the stands.  A penalty only gained us a few yards, and our try had come from outside the 22 at any rate.  Why not get the ball in play and take our chances?  What were we seeking to gain?  Or are Gibson and Mele actually bereft of the skill to clear the ball from a retreating scrum?

With one final, final chance we had the ball deep in our own half but thoughtlessly went wide, for a change, and were forced into touch.  I just don’t understand what our players are thinking some times.  The pass to Morris wasn’t going to put him clear so why throw it?  We seemed obsessed by getting it wide rather than committing defenders and running straight.

A fourth home game without victory this season is grim reading, especially with an Anglo-Welsh game and Saracens still to come.

The other results dictate that we head to Clermont, on a run of 71 successive home wins, in the quarter finals.  They have to lose sometime.  Might as well be us.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Loan Players: 9 in Action

Tigers development squad continues its learning curve this week as 9 members are out on loan learning the ropes of professional rugby.

Tonight Nottingham face Munster A in the British & Irish Cup.  Ryan Bower and Tom Price return to the pack and will be looking to press their claims for Championship action.  George Catchpole continues in midfield whilst Harry Thacker is in line for his Nottingham debut should he feature from the bench.

Doncaster welcome Cinderford to Castle Park as they seek an immediate return to the Championship.  Italian Prop Riccardo Brugnara retains his place at loosehead whilst Lucas Guillame switches from blindside to Number 8.

Tiziano Pasquali is a member of the wider European squad so presumably is required in Treviso with the first team.

Loughborough Students travel to east London to face historic opponents Blackheath.  Harry Rudkin is named as loosehead, though he was named last week and had to pull out, whilst Harry Wells continues in the engine room at lock.  Scott Steele drops to the bench after starting last week.  Former academy player Jake Albon is also in the Starting XV.

Nottingham (v Munster A)
15) Andrew Savage
14) Olly Woodburn
13) George Catchpole
12) Joe Munro
11) Ryan Hough
10) Matthew Jarvis
9) Sean Romans
1) Ryan Bower
2) Alun Walker
3) Harry Williams
4) Tom Price
5) Dan Montagu
6) Kiefer Laxton
7) Brent Wilson (c)
8) Tom Calladine
16) Campese Ma'afu
17) Harry Thacker
18) Michael Holford
19 Neilus Keogh
20) Finlay Barnham
21) Rory Lynn
22) Jacob Knight

Doncaster (v Cinderford)
15) Glenn Bryce
14) Paul Jarvis
13) Jacob Woodhouse
12) Mat Clark
11) Tyson Lewis
10) Jamie Lennard
9) Bruno Bravo
1) Riccardo Brugnara
2) Roberto Santamaria
3) Darren Morris
4) Matt Challinor ©
5) Chris Planchant
6) Adam Kettle
7) Michael Hills
8) Lucas Guillame
16) Santiago Sodini
17) Jack Bergmanas
18) Bevon Armitage
19) Paul Roberts
20) Dougie Flockhart

Loughborough (v Blackheath)
1 Harry Rudkin 
2 Gareth Harris 
3 Danny Herriot 
4 Jack Collister 
5 Harry Wells 
6 Jake Albon 
7 James Freeman (C) 
8 George Messum 
9 Henry Taylor 
10 Chris Surman 
11 Alex Davis 
12 Jack Bradford 
13 Rhys Owen 
14 Craig Dowsett 
15 Jack Pons
16 Mike Daniels 
17 Tom Crozier 
18 Gab Carroll 
19 Scott Steele 
20 Sam Katz

Mafi & Allen return as Tigers head for pivotal European Fixture

Tigers travel to Italy looking to secure a victory and set up a do or die clash with Irish giants Ulster at Welford Road next week.

Richard Cockerill is forced into two changes in his Starting XV as injury forces Tom Youngs and Ed Slater out.  There has been no word on Youngs's injury but we know that Ed Slater is missing after suffering a concussion last week.

Neil Briggs starts his first Heineken up game for 4 years, his last was in January 2010 when his Sale side traveled to Cardiff.  Replacing Slater in the engine room is South African lock Sebastian De Chaves.

The headline returns are amongst the replacements.  Steve Mafi is back after missing 3 months on compassionate leave following complications with the birth of his child in Australia.  Also returning is Anthony Allen.  Allen has missed 3 months following a nasty leg injury suffered against Northampton in October.  Both add a sparkle of quality and experience to the bench and are sure to feature if needed.

In the front row Marcos Ayerza makes 150th start for the club.  Ayerza made his debut in the 27 all draw at home to Gloucester on 16th September 2006; in the current squad only Louis Deacon and George Chuter have played more games for the club.

Tigers know that Treviso will put up a strong challenge at home.  The last two encounters in Treviso have gone down to the wire: in 2012 it required a last minute penalty try for Tigers to bag the 4 points and back in 2010 it took an Alesana Tuilagi try from the half way line with only 4 minutes to spare for Tigers to take home all 5 points.  

Last season Treviso finished 7th in the RaboDirect Pro12; this season how ever their form has been worse as they have only won 3 games so far, with two of those being Connacht and Zebre at home.

In the Italian side the Tongan-Japanese Christian Loamanu switches from centre to flanker.  Loamanu has previously played number 8 for the Italians in a bonus point win against Munster last season.  In the back row he is joined by Robert Barbieri, a Canadian, and Paul Derbyshire, despite the name born and bred in Italy to an Italian mother.

Treviso posses a very strong front row.  Tighthead Lorenzo Cittadini is an incredibly strong scrummager and is pushing Castro very hard for his Italian test jersey.  Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini is an experienced campaigner, regularly linked to top English and French sides he has stayed loyal to Treviso. 

The referee is Romain Poite, from Castres in France.  Poite refereed the 60-16 win for Tigers against Treviso in 2008 but otherwise we have struggled with him away from home losing to Ulster twice as well as Saracens back in 2010.

Other results to look for are victories for Clermont against Harlequins; Toulon against Cardiff; Munster against Gloucester and Ospreys against Northampton.  A Tigers victory combined with wins for those European giants and both Ulster and ourselves will be sure of at least a best runners up spot in the quarter finals.

Leicester Tigers
15 Mathew Tait
14 Niall Morris
13 Vereniki Goneva
12 Toby Flood (c)
11 Miles Benjamin
10 Owen Williams
9 Ben Youngs
1 Marcos Ayerza
2 Neil Briggs
3 Dan Cole
4 Louis Deacon
5 Sebastian De Chaves
6 Jamie Gibson
7 Julian Salvi
8 Thomas Waldrom

16 Rob Hawkins
17 Boris Stankovich
18 Fraser Balmain
19 Steve Mafi
20 Jordan Crane
21 David Mélé
22 Anthony Allen
23 Matt Smith

Benetton Treviso: 
15 Brendan Williams
14 Angelo Esposito
13 Michele Campagnaro
12 Andrea Pratichetti
11 Luke McLean
10 Mat Berquist
9 Edoardo Gori
1 Michele Rizzo
2 Leonardo Ghiraldini
3 Lorenzo Cittadini
4 Antonio Pavanello (c)
5 Valerio Bernabo
6 Christian Loamanu
7 Paul Derbyshire
8 Robert Barbieri Replacements: 
16 Franco Sbaraglini
17 Alberto de Marchi
18 Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet
19 Marco Fuser
20 Marco Filippucci
21 Francesco Minto
22 Fabio Semenzato
23 James Ambrosini

Referee: Romain Poite
Touch Judges: Christophe Berdos & Tual Trainini

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Loan Report: Joy for Donny, but no Home Comforts for Notts or Students

8 members of Leicester Tigers Development Squad were in action this weekend as they seek to gain experience and push for a first team opportunity.

On Saturday National League 1 leaders Doncaster traveled to the imaginatively named "Rugby Ground" and beat newly promoted Worthing 21-17 courtesy of a penalty try engineered by 20 year old loosehead Riccardo Brugnara.  Brugnara played almost the whole match, not being replaced until the 77th minute, as the Knights remained in pole position for a promotion to the Championship.  Flanker Lucas Guillaume played the whole match on the blindside whilst 19 year old tighthead Tiziano Pasquali played the final half hour after replacing Darren Morris.

Loughborough Students did not have such a good weekend falling at home to Wharfedale 27-7.  20 year old Scottish scrum half Scott Steele made his first start for the Students before being replaced in the 50th minute whilst Harry Wells played the whole match from the second row.  The Students started brightly with an early try giving them a 7-0 lead; but that was as good as it got for the Students as the experienced Yorkshire side pulled away from them with two tries in 5 minutes during the second half.

On Sunday struggling Nottingham entertained Ealing at Meadow Lane.  The Londoners had only won one game in their inaugural season at the second level whilst Nottingham finished last season 2nd in the regular season.  As you can probably guess from that build up it was the visitors from London who shocked the Midlanders with a 28-27 win.  

Outside backs Henry Purdy and George Catchpole played the whole match whilst Ryan Bower emerged from the replacements bench in the 55th minute for Fijian loosehead Campese Ma'afu.  Nottingham scored 4 tries with scores for Bath wing Ollie Woodburn and a hat trick for former Tigers flanker Brent Wilson.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Tigers draw Bath

They say a draw is like kissing your cousin.  You’re glad you’ve not lost but disappointed not to have won.  Some people get really wound up by draws in Rugby.  I’ve never really understood that attitude, a good draw is as worthy an afternoon’s entertainment as any other.

But it could have been more.  But it might have been less.

Jamie Gibson capped a fine performance squeezing into the corner to seal the draw with next to no time left on the clock.  Owen Williams had the conversion to steal the win at the death.  But it drifted wide.  It was hard lines for Williams who missed all three conversions he attempted.  All were from the touchline and were close but that is no consolation.

Tigers had done well and showed terrific resolve to get back into the game.  After 50 minutes it was grim reading for the home fans as Jonathon Joseph’s try gave Bath a 10 point lead.  How the TMO failed to spot the forward pass to Joseph is a mystery.  Even under the modern, sexy, southern hemisphere interpretations of where the hands go it was forwards. 

To rub salt in the wounds Bath had knocked on in the earlier lineout and were, at least accidentally, offside when it was re-gathered into the maul.

Whilst the lack of call on the attack is disappointing Tigers also will be less than pleased over the tackling in that first 50 minutes.

Tigers started the match well, gaining good territory inside the Bath 22.  After Jordan Crane set up the mid field ruck Owen Williams spread it out to Toby Flood who committed his opposite number before releasing Louis Deacon on the outside.  Deacon did a lovely take and give to put Miles Benjamin in space.

Showing the predatory instincts that brought him to Tigers attentions in the first place Benjamin finished the try with a superb inside shimmy, holding the defence to give him the room to score in the corner.

Williams kick faded wide but he was on the mark with a penalty 4 minutes later after Matt Garvey failed to roll away in the ruck. 

Bath responded immediately.  Ben Youngs cleared the kick off to around half way.  It was a scrappy win for Bath and Stringer juggled the knock down.  Off the right arm and it was forward but he got his left on it in the nick of time.

The bouncing ball attracted Tigers inside defence, sniffing the dominate tackle, but Ford showed coolness to float it over Flood towards Nick Abendanon.  Abendanon took Goneva on the outside, the Fijian will be disappointed with his effort, and drew in Mat Tait as last man to feed Anthony Watson.  The try still needed some finishing though as Watson powered through Niall Morris’s tackle to go under the posts.

Bath didn’t rest on their laurels and were quick to test the Tigers defence again.  Kyle Eastmond, a league convert, was effervescent in attack as he round Marcos Ayerza to break the defensive line.  On fast ball George Ford weaved inside Tom Youngs and just outside of Julian Salvi’s grasp to set up a switch ball for Francois Louw to power over for Bath’s second try in 5 minutes.

This was good play from Bath but the litter of missed tackles from Tigers in the build up to the first and third tries especially will be aggravating for the coaches in their analysis.  You can prepare your team as well as you like but when individuals miss tackles you will concede tries.

Williams and Ford then traded penalties before Miles Benjamin had a great chance for Tigers.  Jamie Gibson managed to free the ball from a ruck and Benjamin was away down the G.N.C. Stand side; with only Ford to beat his decision to chip and gather was perhaps not the best.  Easy with hindsight and it was close to coming off. 

Williams then Ford scored more penalties to make it 14-20 at half time; Perenise had failed to roll away from a ruck for Bath then Ed Slater was adjudged to have played the scrum half from the ruck.

After half time Williams cut the gap to only 3 with a monster 48 meter penalty following Paul James boring in at scrum.

Joseph’s try, remarked upon above, then put Bath 10 clear and the writing was on the wall for the Champion Tigers.  Already long short of the Saints in second place if Tigers have serious designs on Twickenham in May they need to make a statement and deny Bath the win. 

And the Try Bonus Point.  Joseph’s try was Bath’s third, just one short of the required for a bonus point.  So when they again gained the favour J.P. Doyle it was no surprise to see George Ford kick for the corner.

This was a massive moment.  A bonus point win for Bath at Welford Road would have seen Tigers season holed below the waterline.

Webber threw in to the lineout and Bath forwards were repelled by a humongous effort from all the forwards but Tom Youngs and Ed Slater in particular.  This was arguably the turning point in the match as it signalled the end of Bath’s positive play as they slowly retreated into their shell.

Tigers brought David Mele and Thomas Waldrom on from the bench.  Ben Youngs and Jordan Crane had played well but we needed fresh legs to lift the tempo and change tack in attack. 

A midfield penalty was kicked by Flood to the corner.  He signals the side together for a huddle.  What was said?  And by who?  A deep tactical analysis from Flood or Mele perhaps, or a cry from the heart by Louis Deacon?

When in doubt go back to the basics.  The weapon that has skewered Bath time and again.  The rolling maul.

They take it down.  We go again.  They take down again.  Captain Hooper is binned for his part.  We go again.  Penalty again.  But for Bath!  On as a sub for Ed Slater it is Sebastian De Chaves who is ruled to have blocked the Bath defence.

But soon sanity is restored and Tigers are going for it again; 4 minutes later we have a line out 10m from the line.  Catch by Gibson, drive by the pack with Waldrom secure with the ball at the back.  He breaks for the line.  Takes Matt Garvey with him and swoops through the legs of Devoto to find the ground.  With help from Mele’s guiding finger Doyle sees the grounding and awards the try.

Again Williams is agonisingly wide as his conversion just gets caught on the wind.

Tigers were going for it now and Bath was hanging on.  Whether it was fitness or, more likely, nerves their body language and tactics had gone negative.  They seemed to forget they were only one try from a 5 point win.  Thank god.

It took long enough and for a while it seemed like it was never going to happen.  But Tigers found the referee’s grace with 4 minutes on the clock and Flood kicked the penalty deep into the Bath 22.  The drive was halted by what seemed to be a Bath player round the side but no penalty was forth coming and Tigers went on. 

First Williams tried himself; then it was Dan Cole and Tom Youngs.  It came back to Toby Flood, going left, who again tried his luck before Mele moved it right and towards Gibson.  It took two phases and another Williams drive but Gibson got the ball with the line at his mercy.  Banahan tried his best to dislodge the ball but under heavy pressure Gibson got it down.

The telling feature in the end was that Bath’s tries were central, whilst we were forced to the fringes.  With easier conversion Williams would surely have landed at least one.  It is also worth remembering that whilst Ford had the best of the kicking this day his season’s percentage is still only 70% whilst Williams’s remains over 80%. 

Tigers are now level on points with Quins in 4th, with players like Manu, Parling, Croft, Mulipola and Allen still to come back a play off place is there to be taken.  And from then who knows?

Friday, 3 January 2014

6 Tigers out in Loan Action

6 members of Tigers development squad have been named in loan action this weekend.

In the Championship 3 Tigers are in the Nottingham side to face Ealing Trailfinders. 

Winger Henry Purdy and centre George Catchpole start for the Green 'n' Whites whilst prop Ryan Bower is on the bench behind Fijian international Campese Ma'afu and former Tiger Michael Holford.

In National League 1 Doncaster face Worthing Raiders.  They start with 20 year old Italian Riccardo Brugnara at loosehead and Frenchman Lucas Guillame at flanker.  19 year old tighthead Tiziano Pasquali is amongst the replacements.  

Both young props face further stiff competition as the Knights have signed experienced Argentinean prop Santiago Sodini from Duendes Rugby Club in Rosario for the rest of the season.

15) Andrew Savage 14) Henry Purdy
13) George Catchpole

12) Joe Munro
11) Olly Woodburn
10) Rory Lynn
9) Sean Romans

1) Campese Ma'afu
2) Alun Walker
3) Michael Holford
4) Neilus Keogh
5) Dan Montagu
6) Will Skuse
7) Brent Wilson (c)
8) Tom Calladine

16) Ryan Bower
17) Jon Vickers
18) Morgan Eames
19) Joe Burton
20) Finlay Barnham
21) Matthew Jarvis
22) Ryan Hough

15) Glenn Bryce
14) Dougie Flockhart
13) Mat Clark
12) Bevon Armitage
11) Tyson Lewis
10) Paul Roberts
9) Bruno Bravo
1) Riccardo Brugnara
2) Roberto Santamaria
3) Darren Morris
4) Matt Challinor ©
5) Michael Walker-Fitton
6) Lucas Guillame
7) Michael Hills
8) Adam Kettle

16) Tiziano Pasquali
17) Jack Bergmanas
18) Chris Planchant
19) Jamie Lennard
20) Jacob Woodhouse

Flood's 100 Up, but Williams retains No.10

Tigers name their strongest possible line up for the visit of long time rivals Bath to Welford Road.  

Let's make no bones about it; this is a crucial game.  Some people have been fooled into complacency by the stats from last week's programme that we are level pegging with last season.  It is true our record of wins, losses and tries from round 9 were tied.  

But after the equivalent fixtures last year we beat Worcester and went top.  This year we are 13 points from second place.  For some context after the atrocious start to the 2011/12 season, when we were denied so many of our player by the World Cup we made it to this stage of the season 10 points from a home semi final.

Since the play offs were introduced we have only once been this far from a home semi final after 11 rounds; that was 2003/4 when were only above Rotherham and Saracens in the table and saw Deano's departure not long after.

Northampton and Saracens have stolen a march on us in 2013.  It's time for Tigers to show their teeth and make 2014 our year again.

Toby Flood makes his 100th start for the club after recovering from a leg injury suffered away to Montpellier.  It is sad that such a historic start is his first since announcing he was jumping ship and giving up the Tigers captaincy to chase more cash.  By my records he is the first Tigers captain to leave for money.  Murphy, Corry, Johnson and Deano all retired in the role.

Interestingly Owen Williams retains the fly half jersey with Flood moving to inside centre for only the 3rd time in his century of starts.  Let's hope for better results than the two losses suffered to Cardiff and Ospreys in the other games.

Miles Benjamin returns on the wing in place of Adam Thompstone, Benjamin rewarded for his fine form and Thompstone punished for his poor attempted tackle on Mark Cueto last week.

In the pack Jordan Crane and Thomas Waldrom once again rotate at number 8 but the rest is unchanged.  Graham Kitchener returns to bench and is unlucky to miss out but in a power game on the smaller Welford Road pitch Louis Deacon's strengths cannot be excluded.

A welcome return to the Match day squad is hooker Rob Hawkins.  Hawkins has yet to feature in a match day squad this season after a shoulder injury in the summer and he will surely be highly motivated against his home town.

Bath have been in superb form this season with 11 wins in succession until they faced Northampton at the Garden's last weekend.

They name a strong team with former Tigers fly half George Ford in at 10.  Whilst Ford's status as the league's top scorer has more to do with Bath's tactics of kicking their penalties at goal rather than for territory he is in reasonably nick none the less.

He teams up with want away League star Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph in a talented but light weight mid-field.  The winger Matt Banahan more than compensates for any lack of bulk elsewhere; let's just hope he doesn't pole axe any of our players this year.

Also featuring is last year's red card shame flanker Francois Louw.  The RFU might have preferred to shame the touch judge into retiring by over turning his decision, with no evidence, but those of us on the terrace know that Louw's red card was fully deserved. 

A less extreme incident in the Millenium Stadium in November earned him a yellow card for South Africa so perhaps he has learned the tiniest of lessons. 

Referee J.P. Doyle hails from Dublin and joined the RFU's refereeing department after traveling to London for University.  He has refereed the Tigers 14 times previously with Leicester winning 11, losing 2 and drawing that memorable game against Saints earlier this season.  Doyle has a reputation of a more hands off referee which can lead to exciting but lower scoring games.

The game has been moved to a Sunday lunch time for BT Sports, the effect can be seen as tickets sold are expected to be under 23,000 for such a big game.  To make matter worse it will not even be on BT Sports 1 as that channel is showing, of all teams, Derby!  What a way to rub salt in the wound.

15 Mathew Tait
14 Niall Morris
13 Vereniki Goneva
12 Toby Flood (c)
11 Miles Benjamin
10 Owen Williams
9 Ben Youngs
1 Marcos Ayerza
2 Tom Youngs
3 Dan Cole
4 Louis Deacon
5 Ed Slater
6 Jamie Gibson
7 Julian Salvi
8 Jordan Crane

16 Rob Hawkins
17 Boris Stankovich
18 Fraser Balmain
19 Graham Kitchener
20 Thomas Waldrom
21 David Mélé
22 Scott Hamilton
23 Matt Smith

15 Nick Abendanon
14 Anthony Watson
13 Jonathan Joseph
12 Kyle Eastmond
11 Matt Banahan
10 George Ford
9 Peter Stringer
1 Paul James
2 Rob Webber
3 Anthony Perenise
4 Stuart Hooper ( c )
5 Dave Attwood
6 Matt Garvey
7 Francois Louw
8 Carl Fearns

16 Eusebio Guinazu
17 Nathan Catt
18 Juan Pablo Orlandi
19 Dominic Day
20 Leroy Houston
21 Martin Roberts
22 Ollie Devoto
23 Horacio Agulla

Leicester Kit:

Bath Kit:

Referee: J.P. Doyle
Touch Judges: Ashly Rowden & Gareth Copsey
TV: BT Sports 2 HD, Sunday 1PM (KO: 2PM)