Saturday, 28 June 2014

Know your Enemy: Champions Cup Pool Stage 2014-15


Founded: 1879
Ground: Kingspan Stadium (a.k.a. Ravenhill; Capacity: 18,196)
Star Man: Ruan Pienaar

In: Wiehahn Herbst (Natal Sharks), Ruaidhri Murphy (ACT Brumbies), Dave Ryan (Zebre), Franco van der Merwe (Gauteng Lions), Sean Reidy (Counties Manukau), Ian Humphreys (London Irish), Louis Ludik (Agen) 
Out: John Afoa (Gloucester), Tom Court (London Irish), Paddy McAllister (Aurillac), Adam Macklin (Rotherham), James McKinney (Rotherham), David McIlwaine (Leeds), Niall Annett (Worcester), Johann Muller (Retirement), Sean Doyle (ACT Brumbies), Stephen Ferris (Retirement), Ian Porter (Connacht), Paddy Wallace (Retirement), Chris Farrell (Grenoble) 
Ins: 7
Outs: 13

We meet again.  For the third time in four seasons we will be making a trip to Belfast to meet what has become our European nemesis.  Embarrassed in 2004, humbled in 2012 we were at least close in Belfast in 2013.  Some were happy when we settled for a bonus point defeat.

But the home leg.  Oh the home leg.  A win and Welford Road would've hosted its first European knock out game since 2007.  We were ten points up, 25 minutes to play.  Ruan Pienaar, that genius, that bloody minded never-say-die Afrikaner, inspired a huge comeback.  He scored all the points.  He charged down Flood.  He nailed his kicks.  Nobody was happy with that losing bonus point.

Their European campaign ended at the quarter finals after defeat to Saracens and a red card to full back Jared Payne.

Ravenhill opened in 1923; all 4 stands have been redeveloped in recent years.  It also bears a new name after a sponsorship deal with local building materials firm Kingspan.

Ulster have lost two southern hemisphere powerhouses from their pack as Johan Muller retires and John Afoa moves to Gloucester. Irish international prop Tom Court also moves on as does long serving centre Paddy Wallace.  

Ulster's recruitment for this season is headed by a trio of South Africans; prop Wiehahn Herbst, one cap wonder lock Franco van der Merwe and full back Louis Ludik all join from the rainbow nation.

The most telling loss might not be on the field.  Long serving Director of Rugby David Humphreys has left to join Gloucester, like Dean Richards he left the day to day coaching to others but his experience will be missed.

As well as talisman Pienaar Ulster posses British Lion Tommy Bowe on the wing and emerging Irish fly half Paddy Jackson.  Darren Cave is a classy centre with Ian Henderson a growing force in the pack.


Founded: 1908
Ground: Stade Mayol (Capacity:15,400)
Star Man: Take your pick


In: Fabien Barcella (Biarritz), Simone Ferrari (Mogliano), Guilhem Guirado (Perpignan), Romain Taofifenua (Perpignan), Andy Cramond (Edinburgh), Gerhard Vosloo (Clermont), Jean-Baptiste Grenod (Aix-en-Provence), Mamuka Gorgodze (Montpellier), Eric Escande (Montpellier), Nicolas Durand (Perpignan), Jimmy Yobo (Aurillac), James O'Connor (London Irish), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff)

Out: Emmanuel Felsina (Lyon), Benjamin Noirot (Biarritz), Sébastien Bruno (Retirement), Pierrick Gunther (Lyon), Joe van Niekerk (Retirement), Jérémy Lenaerts (Narbonne), Jonny Wilkinson (Retirement), Quentin Lenfant (Albi), Alexis Palisson (Toulouse), Vincent Martin (Lyon), Dannie Russow (Retirement)

Ins: 13

Outs: 11

So you've just won back to back European Cups.  Your star full back, Delon Armitage, impresses again and signs new deal.  What's an aspirant club to do?

Obviously you sign Leigh Halfpenny.  Then James O'Conner.  Why have just one world class full back when you can have three?

Not content in the backrow with World Champion Juan Smith, All Black powerhouse Chris Masoe, Argentinean captain Juan Fernandez Lobbe and English Exile Steffon Armitage you go out and sign Mamuka Gorgodze, the Georgian Goliath.

They've lost Wilko though.

Toulon are funded by comic book magnate Mourad Boudjellal, though he claims the side is now self funding.  A scary prospect.  Boudjellal took over the side in May 2006 and promptly led them to relegation.  Promoted to the Top 14 on the second attempt the side only really started to hit the heights with the signing of Wilkinson.

It took 3 attempts to become French champions; losing finals in 2012 & 2013 before claiming the Bouclier de Brennus this year.  They were last champions in 1992; a 19 year old Yann Delaigue landed 2 drop goals to beat Biarritz in Serge Blanco's final game.

Tigers are no strangers to Toulon after visiting for the 2013 European Cup quarter final, a close 6 point defeat.  The Stade Mayol has a mythic property for the Toulonnais and the atmosphere can be electric, but is old and dangerous at times.  The stadium is an accident waiting to happen, two stands are accessed from a tiny side street with no room to move for hours before kick off.

Named for local music hall star Felix Mayol and opened in 1920 it is built entirely into the local city environment giving the ground its unique charm, atmosphere and making improvement all but impossible.  Mayol also gifted the club its emblem the Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis).

Toulon are coached by former French national team manager Bernard Laporte and have a galaxy of stars available to them.  Hayman, Castro, Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, the back row mentioned above, Giteau, Bastareaud, Mermoz, Drew Mitchell, Habana.  Surely they have to get old sooner or later?

Llanelli Scarlets

Founded: 1875
Ground: Parc Y Scarlets (Capacity: 14,870)
Star Man: Rhys Priestland


In: Peter Edwards (London Welsh), Chris Hala'ufia (London Irish), Rory Pitman (Wasps), Regan King (Clermont), Harry Robinson (Cardiff)

Out: Gareth Thomas (Ospreys), Deacon Manu (Retirement), Sione Timani (Tarbes), Josh Turnbull (Cardiff), Aled Thomas (Gloucester), Olly Barkley (London Welsh), Jonathan Davies (Clermont), Nic Reynolds (London Welsh)

Ins: 5


Another familiar rival.  Leicester have faced Llanelli 71 times stretching back to October 1896.  Tigers have taken 29 victories to the Welshmen's 37 with 5 draws.  In the professional era Tigers have won 6 to Llanelli's 3, the last two meetings in the LV Cup going the way of Llanelli.

The politics of Welsh rugby require Llanelli to go by the name "Scarlets" alone and pretend to be formed in 2003.  But the roots of this club go back to Victorian era and include celebrated victories over touring international sides including the 1972 All Blacks and against World Champions Australia in 1992.

The club opened its new home Parc Y Scarlets in 2008, the modern stadium is built on an out of town retail park.  It boasts modern facilities but the home club struggles to fill its 14,870 capacity regularly in the Pro12.  

The club is also famed for the song Sosban Fach (Little Saucepan), a tribute to the traditional tin plating industry in the town.  The club also celebrates the industrial heritage of the town with saucepans adorning the top of the goal posts.

Llanelli are coached by Simon Easterby, husband of TV presenter Sara Elgan, the former Harrogate, Leeds and Ireland flanker represented the club 180 times.  

The top name of his current charges is Rhys Priestland, the Wales international fly half.  He will be reunited with centre Regan King who rejoins the Scarlets from Clermont.

Winger Jordan Williams, small and agile, had a breakout season in 2013/14 as did lock Jake Ball.  Much like Ed Slater Ball is English, ignored by the academy system and spotted playing rugby in Australia.

Llanelli beat Harlequins at the Stoop last season with an exhillerating counter attacking game, so will be as dangerous opponent as ever.  Question marks will however linger over the pack.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Young Players End of Term Update

In January, after the farcical premature end to the LV Cup game against Quins I pondered on the subject of game time for young players.  Did we stack up?  Was it a problem?  Whose fault was it?

Well with the season finished and no warm trophy glow to keep us satisfied over the summer I've decided to re-vist the subject.

First of all let's look at the updated Tigers' numbers:

What's changed from January then?  We've upped the numbers of young players across the board; all three competitions saw increased use of under 23 players.  The return of Manu Tuilagi is largely responsible, in January he had only played 78 Premiership minutes, since his February return he has been an ever present.

Others have come to the fore; Fraser Balmain has seen his stock rise from 90 Prem minutes to 322, Pablo Matera from 70 to 300 as he settled in to the club.  Tiziano Pasquali and Harry Thacker have both seen Premiership debuts.

Pasquali was the youngest prop in the 3 major European leagues to see league action this season, even if he was only used for 13 minutes.

But we've also seen the fringe youngsters leave with depressing regularity.  6 of the 18 player used move on to pastures new.  Joe Cain has retired; Wells, Steele, Dunn, Purdy and Humphreys have all been released.  None were deemed worthy of Premiership starts but decisions are being made on these players earlier than ever.

Wells is only 20 years old, Ed Slater was 23 when he arrived from Australia, what would 3 years of development do for him?  

Even at this level there is a salary cap.  The club is allowed to spend £200k on players under 24 who earn under £30k, otherwise they count in the senior cap.  Manu is obviously beyond that as surely are Owen Williams and Pablo Matera.  But there is a good chance that the others are part of this cap, alongside the generation below like Brugnara, Hubbert, Milne and Tresidder.  

Domestically we still sit bottom of the table but the gap has been closed:

Back in January Tigers had almost half the ratio of younger players than any other.

Wasps lead the way but 20% of their total is Joe Launchbury and 40% of their minutes are taken up by players in the final year of qualification. 

Harlequins have used 17 different players under the age of 23 in the Premiership and 20% of game time is taken up by these players.  

But again they are heavily skewed to the top end with the 8 players born September 1990 to August 1991 constituting 71% of their under 23 minutes.  

Exeter's numbers are perhaps the most interesting.  They have gone for a limited number of players gaining lots of minutes.  Only 6 young players have been used in the league but 5 of them have played more minutes than Fraser Balmain.  Cowan-Dickie, Hill, Slade, Nowell and Ewers seem to be the nucleus of a new Exeter.

Europe wide only 7 French teams played their youngsters less often than we did, including double winners Toulon.  Ospreys were Europe leaders with 36.75% of game time going to under 23 year olds.

Who is likely to come through in the future?  Balmain and Pasquali have been talked up by Cockerill in the Mercury, Thacker continues to impress in his opputunities.  Many have been concerned about the lack of chances given to Javiah Pohe and George Catchpole, especially during the injury crisis in the centres this season.

But given another year of development they will be better when their chance comes.  Only 8 backs born in 1994 or '95 played more than one league game last season.

It would take a special kind of optimist to claim that Tigers are on the cusp of unearthing another generation of world class talent but do we really need one?  The majority of our key players are under 30 and coming into their prime.  

Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Logo Mulipola, Marcos Ayerza, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Vereniki Goneva and Manu Tuilagi are all world class with plenty of time ahead of them.  Ed Slater, Pablo Matera, Steve Mafi, Graham Kitchener and Miles Benjamin are all young and full of potential to join them soon.

Key signings to this group with the aim of greater glory in the new Champions Cup seems like a better priority than blooding youngsters for the sake of it.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Aviva Premiership 204-15 Map

Map of 2014-15 Aviva Premiership Sides:

 You can also view the map in google maps here and use it generate directions for away games.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The UltraSubMarines Awards 2014

It’s that time of year again when the rugby is over, earlier than usual for us, and we must make do with that pale substitute: arguing about our opinions on rugby instead.  This year hasn’t been a classic for Tigers; scarred by injuries that seemed to come in debilitating bunches; always fighting an uphill battle in the league following bright starts from Saracens and Saints; Our captain deserting ship mid campaign.

But no season is complete doom and gloom.  The high points were still there.  The win in Montpellier, out singing the home fans in the process, will live forever in the memory.  The record tying win against the Saints.

So let us crack on, the same categories as last year in the same order.

Singing of the season
Last Year: Vereniki Goneva

Won last year by our Flying Fijian we have some strong contenders this year.

Pablo Matera is a quality operator but young and often naive to the whims of English referees, whilst David Mele could not shift Ben Youngs from his perch.  So they miss out.  Jamie Gibson benefitted from injuries to Mafi and Croft to cement his claim on the 6 shirt making 24 starts.  An honest worker to the end he seems to lack that bit of magic we require from our flankers. 

If work rate is what you require Blaine Scully will provide it in spades.  The Californian has made chasing lost causes a speciality.

The winner though has to be Owen Williams.  Arriving unheralded from Llanelli his calm demeanour and pin point kicking quickly saw him over take Lamb in the pecking order.  Following the fallout from Flood’s move to Toulouse he steered the ship to 7 league wins and a draw in 2014.  Scoring 187 points, including Tigers first drop goal for almost 2 years, he was the real find of the season.

An RFU injustice has robbed him of the chance to wear a Wales test jersey but on this season’s form another chance will surely come before the Rugby World Cup.

Try of the season
Last Season: Adam Thompstone v Treviso (A)

Tigers score a lot of tries.  Despite what the critics say we’ve scored 86 tries this season, a fantastic return.  You’d need a better memory than me to remember them all, but some stick out as classics.

Logo Mulipola’s 25 yard rampage against Exeter; Goneva’s weaving run versus Worcester on the opening day of the season; his “fumble and go” against London Irish will be replayed on rugby’s equivalent of “Own Goals and Gaffes” forever.  In the biggest games we scored some attractive tries too, Jordan Crane finishing Owen Williams cross field kick in Clermont lives long in the memory. 

But this year’s winner has to be Vereniki Goneva’s try away to Newcastle.  It starts with an Ed Slater break, spotting the referee in the defensive line he uses him and break the line swotting the Falcons away like flies.  After the ruck Ben Youngs speeds the ball away and Dan Bowden’s floated pass finds Goneva well marked.

Or is he?  He beats one man in a phone box, his footwork bamboozling, hands off another and is free.  Only the full back to beat, he goes for the chip.  And chases.  He out strips the defence to win the race and put us back in the lead after a difficult half when it looked like our play off dreams were fading.

Game of the season
Last Season: Northampton (Premiership Final)

One candidate stands head and shoulders above the others for me.  Montpellier away became a sort of bench mark for the side.  We hadn’t won in France for 7 long years and the monkey on the back was in danger of turning into a Gorilla. 

The only match I can ever remember that ended nil all at half time it was thoroughly absorbing none the less.  Both teams had chances in that half but Tigers broke the deadlock early in the second period.  Tom Youngs devastating side step taking him past the close defence.  Montpellier struck back with a strike against the head and a breakaway try from half way by fly half Selponi.

The advantage was extended by Lucas Delpoint after Gorgodze’s break.

We were 9 points down with 9 minutes to go.  Away in France and winless in 7 years across La Manche.  Ryan Lamb’s spell in Leicester was brief but he’ll be forever remembered for what came next.  A scrum won a penalty 45m out, Lamb nailed it to reduce the arrears to 6.  Then a frenzied final attack, a master break from Miles Benjamin set us up in the 22 before the ball went wide.  Well executed simple hands from Morris, Slater and Ayerza put Goneva in at the corner.

The Fijian maestro kept the ball off the floor in goal to make the conversion more central and Lamb stepped forward once more to nail the kick and send the travelling supporters into raptures.  This one lives long in the memory. 

Academy player of the season
Last Season: Henry Purdy

To be eligible this player must have featured in the Premiership Under 18s Academy League this season.

It was another strong year for the Academy in the league, a single loss away to Gloucester cost Tigers the chance to claim the inaugural national title but the rest of the Northern Conference was dispatched with try bonus points secured in all games.  Overall 38 tries were scored in 7 matches and 41 players were used.

Strong players this year were number 8 Charlie Beckett, centre Charlie Thacker, brother of Harry, and David Williams, who scored a great try in the Premiership 7s series. 

The one player to break through from this level into the first team was Wrexham winger Rhys Williams, who featured from the bench in the LV Cup against Bath.

My player of the year is loosehead prop Owen Hills.  The Market Bosworth native has had a terrific season with 7 tries in 7 starts in the league, squat and powerfully built he has the stature to go further in the game.

U23 Player of the season
Last Season: Ben Youngs & Manu Tuilagi

Last year I said in the rush to claim new blood every year we didn’t want to forget who was actually the best player.  This award would go to the best players, not the newest passing fancy.

So really it’s obviously Manu Tuilagi.  He is clearly the best qualifying player.  But let’s at least pretend to look at the other options.  In terms of serious minutes the other eligible players are Fraser Balmain, Owen Williams and Pablo Matera.

Balmain has grown this year, being involved in all but one match day squad, and is now a solid set piece option that carries industriously.  Williams has been discussed above and really came into his own once given the reigns.  Matera came with big expectations and hasn’t hit them, still so young and plenty of time to overtake Salvi.

So having looked at the options its still Manu.  His return from injuries ignited our back play almost instantaneously.  It’s not been his best year but it’s the mark of the man that it is still the best.

Player of the season
Last Season: Tom Youngs

There have been many individual highlights for our players this season, Blaine Scully qualified for the 2015 Rugby World Cup with his US Eagles, whilst Vereniki Goneva was honoured by his fellow players to become Players’ Player of the Season.  Ed Slater celebrated his first call up to the England squad and was also chosen to lead the club as captain. 

Ed Slater had a remarkable year coming from a bench place last year to leading the club as captain in 2014.  His industrious carrying has been coupled with some beautifully soft hands that really make him the modern lock.

Others to have had strong seasons were Logo Mulipola.  Covering Marcos Ayerza as a loosehead early season he switched sides to tighthead once Dan Cole injured his neck.  The 20 stone Samoan has proved almost impossible to tackle and often damages those who try.  Jack Nowell’s still yet to come back from that shoulder injury. 

Ben Youngs was also back to his best.  Cruelly ignored by Stuart Lancaster in favour of his Leeds prodigy Danny Care the British Lion was immovable from the number 9 shirt for Leicester.  The consistency of not being faffed about by England paid dividend for Tigers as he was constantly challenging and asking questions of forwards around the ruck. 

But really there can only be one winner.  Vereniki Goneva.  The Flying Fijian joined us last season from Tarbes in ProD2 and finished last season as a try scorer at Twickenham.  This season he was has carried our attack scoring 14 tries in 25 games.  When an injury crisis crippled our centre reserves he stepped into the breach and proved his genius on many occasions, genuinely carrying the attacking threat of our team singlehandedly on many occasions.

Long rumoured to be leaving the club to join Castres he squashed those rumours to sign on for at least 2 more years.  He has power, pace and sublime footwork.  If he hasn’t beaten you with his trickery then he can just run over you instead.  Voted by his fellow professionals as the best player this season who am I to argue?