Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sevens Squad Named

Tigers return to our TV screens this summer with another crack at the Premiership 7s series.  After last season's run to the final Tigers will be looking to go one further this year.  Tigers are in a tough pool with Newcastle and London Welsh both naming strong squads.

Tigers name 7 members of the academy in the squad.  George Catchpole will captain the squad, he is joined by hooker Jake Farnworth, scrum half George Tresidder and winger David Williams who were part of the squad last year.  Flanker Will Owen and winger Rhys Williams are the other Academy members named.

Tigers name 5 guest players.  Andy Bulumakau is a Scottish-Fijian centre who won the title with Gloucester last year.  Josh Fowles is a former Macclesfield winger who played for Sale in last year's series.  Phil Woodhead is a regular in National League 1 as Wharfedale's scrum half; Dan Rundle is a new signing for Coventry after scoring 8 tries in 22 appearances for Tynedale at the same level.  Tomi Jones is the captain of specialist 7s side Akuma North Wales Exiles.

Leicester Tigers Sevens:
1 Will Owen
2 Jake Farnworth
3 Tomi Jones
4 George Catchpole (c)
5 Rhys Williams
6 George Tresidder
7 Josh Fowles
8 Andy Bulumakau
9 Phil Woodhead
10 David Williams
11 Oli Bryant
12 Dan Rundle

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Best Squad Ever?

Louis Deacon caused a bit of a stir last week when he boldly declared that this was “the best squad we’ve ever had”.  Whilst Deacon admits he “probably says this every year”, and I must admit it rings a bell, I can’t actually find any quotes from him saying it before. 

So is he right?  Is this squad the best one ever?  Let’s start by a walk down memory lane and quick glance at the competitors:

1994/95: Tigers’ second title win was celebrated with a final day win over Bristol; the Alliance & Leicester Stand was under construction and some significant moves happened in the Southern Hemisphere that changed rugby forever.

Tigers’ squad was deep and strong that year, the starting pack
1994/95 Squad
was full of future and current legends: Rowntree, Cockerill, Garforth, Johnson, Poole, Wells, Back and Richards all near their peak.  They were backed up by some stellar performers too: Derek Jelley needs no introduction; Chris Johnson was a reliable and consistent back up hooker; Tom Smith was Tigers regular until supplanted by some bloke called Johnson; Chris Tarbuck played for England “A” and was ever reliable back row cover after following Tony Russ from Saracens; Bill Drake-Lee was a combative openside flanker.

The half backs were Kardooni & Harris backed up by youngsters Niall Malone and Jamie Hamilton.  The strength in depth of the back three positions was remarkable: John Lily & Wayne Kilford at full back; Steve Hackney, Tony Underwood & Rory Underwood on the wings, with Barry Evans still in the Extras when needed.  The centres had Stuart Potter, along with Diccon Edwards and Richie Robinson.

1996/97: A great year, almost.  The original spilled treble.  Tigers destroyed Toulouse 37-11 to set up a trip to Cardiff to face Brive in the final.  Many people forget we were winning that match 9-8 at half time, most people remember the second half mauling that saw Tigers humbled.

That was the first miss.  The second was the league.  With professional rugby still in its infancy matches were scheduled for the knock out rounds of the European Cup; Tigers’ runs in the European and Pilkington Cups forced the club into a crazy schedule: 7 matches in 21 days.

The run started with a famous win in the Cup Semi.  Gloucester were vanquished 26-13 at Kingsholm thanks to 21 points from Joel Stransky; 4 days later Championship rivals Wasps were defeated 18-12 at a packed Welford Road putting the title back into Tigers hands and they thrashed Orrell 36-14 to make it 3 wins a week.

The next week was not so good.  Gloucester avenged their Cup knockout to seriously dent Tigers title hopes with a 2 point win at Kingsholm; 4 days later much the same side travelled to Bath and were hammered 47-9; the title dream was finally crushed with a first league loss to London Irish.  

1996/97 Squad
A last day draw with Sale secured European rugby for another season, denying the home side and provoking an attack on the Tigers mascot (to this day it’s not exactly clear how “good natured” this was).  Who were we to face in the cup final the very next week?  Why Sale of course!

The squad you say?  Oh yes I’ve sort of run away with myself and the memories there; the squad was a glorious mix of the old and the new.  John Liley, Rory Underwood, Aadel Kardooni, Matt Poole, Dean Richards and John Wells were still active first team players but so were Leon Lloyd, Will Greenwood, Austin Healey and Craig Joiner.  You had names to conjure with like Nnamdi Ezulike and Tim Barlow, plus probably Tigers biggest ever signing World Champion Joel Stransky, who arrived half way through the year. 

The pack contained the gems from 1995 as well as emerging players like Dorian West, Perry Freshwater, Will Johnson plus the league debut of Lewis Moody.

1998/99: Our third title and the beginning of the club’s most decorated era.  England’s only season as a 14 club league, with Swansea and Cardiff also providing opposition in their rebel season, there was no Europe.

Bob Dwyer had been sacked the year before as Tigers were racked with internal strife.  Appointed straight from the playing squad Dean Richards struggled initially as Tigers won only 6 from 14 at the end of the 1997/98 season. 

But the new season started strongly with wins against Quins, London Scottish, Saints and Bedford.  Andy Goode’s First XV starting debut was gained in a forgettable Cheltenham & Gloucester Cup loss to Rugby Lions (who also won the second leg at Welford Road!)

1998/99 Squad
10 successive wins from December to March included a crucial win at Franklin’s Gardens against second place Northampton and laid the foundation for a 3rd English title.  7 Tim Stimpson penalties against his former club, and the previous year’s champions, Newcastle sealed the Title with one match to go.

The squad showed signs of the growing internationalisation of the game with the star signing of 20 cap Wallaby Pat Howard joined by Canadians Dave Lougheed and Harry Toews.  Fritz Van Heerdan joined the previous year and Joel Stransky played his final year.

In pack Martin Corry & Paul Gustard had joined the summer before from Bristol & Blaydon respectively; this season saw Moody, Corry and Back first establish themselves as first choice back rows, with Gustard and Will Johnson providing regular competition and a young Adam Balding beginning to feature from the bench.

The back line of Healey, Stransky, Lougheed, Howard, Joiner, Lloyd and Stimpson has a very good claim on being the best we’ve ever seen, certainly it bares strong comparison with a side like Kenny, Cusworth, Underwood, Dodge, Woodward, Evans and Hare.

2000/01: Paris, the treble, pretty much unarguably our greatest ever season.  The year started in middle of August with a thrilling win against Wasps at Loftus Road, Tigers led 17-6 before Wasps fought back to 22-17 lead.  It took an injury time try by Man of the Match Austin Healey to get the year started with a bang.

Ultimately Tigers won the title from Wasps by 8 points, the penultimate season of real league rugby showed that every match was vitally important with the very last act of the very first game having a crucial impact on the destination of the title 9 months later.

2000/01 Squad
The Title was sealed in March with 2 rounds to go leaving plenty of time to prepare for the assault on Europe.  Gloucester were the opponents at Vicarage Road with Tigers looking to right the wrongs from ’97.  It took a Lloyd try and 14 points from Tim Stimpson to see the Tigers through to the final against Stade Francais, and we all know what happened in that game!

The squad had evolved from the ’99 squad, West had supplanted Cockerill at hooker, with Ben Kay and Louis Deacon coming through in the engine room as Van Heerdan returned to South Africa.  The core 5 of Will Johnson, Corry, Gustard, Moody and Back were complimented with Adam Balding and Peter Short coming through.

In the backs James Grindal and Andy Goode come through the ranks to provide depth and competition to Jamie Hamilton and Austin Healey.  Pat Howard played his last season with Leon Lloyd his regular companion, a teenage Ollie Smith burst onto the scene with 13 starts and Glenn Gelderbloom provided under rated talent and consistency in the centres.

Probably the canniest signing in Tigers history, certainly in the long run, was winger Fereti “Freddie” Tuilagi who joined from St Helens in Rugby League.  He competed with Canadian winger Winston Stanley, another rugby league convert in Steve Booth.  Geordan Murphy and Tim Stimpson were cemented into the other two slots in the back three.

Read part two here: Click here for Part 2, where we look at the teams of the last 10 years plus the current squad

Best Squad ever? Part 2

Louis Deacon caused a bit of a stir last week when he boldly declared that this was “the best squad we’ve ever had”.  Whilst Deacon admits he “probably says this every year”, and I must admit it rings a bell, I can’t actually find any quotes from him saying it before. 

So is he right?  Is this squad the best one ever?  Let’s start by a walk down memory lane and quick glance at the competitors:

You can read part one here: where we look back at squads from the '90s and early 2000s

2004/5: After the twin triumphs of Paris & Cardiff, Tigers entered a rare rebuilding process.  Gone were Jelley, Freshwater, Cockerill, West, Garforth, Gustard, Balding and Jamie Hamilton.

Gone too was Dean Richards, sacked the previous year.  John Wells took the reins for a single season before coaching England’s age group sides.  This year was the last stand of Martin Johnson and Neil Back, the club’s only three time British Lions, and when a record 8 players toured New Zealand with the British Lions.

2004/05 Squad
Graham Rowntree was still around and joined Julian White and Darren Morris as Lions in the front row.  George Chuter was clear first choice at hooker with James Buckland his back up.  Johnson, Kay and Deacon were still the main locks; Henry Tuilagi joined the season before and Brett Deacon was an early season regular with Back, Moody and Corry.

Seru Rabeni was the summer signing from Otago and made an instant impact scoring 8 tries in 10 matches.  Injury in a game against Worcester ruled him out for the season & saw Tom Varndell score a hat trick on only his second start.  Alesana Tuilagi joined in the summer from Parma; working his way into the side and scoring 4 tries in 5 starts.

The season was one of early promise but ultimately came up empty; 4 losses in the first 24 games collapsed to 5 losses in the last 9 games to leave us pot less.  The need to peak for May had not yet been learned.  After emerging from the original Heineken Cup group of death Tigers travelled to Leinster in the Quarter Final; Ollie Smith had his best game scoring a brilliant try and sealing his place on that summer’s Lions tour.

It all went wrong against Toulouse in the semi final, a quick lineout went wide for Finau Maka to score in only the second minute.  It was 10-9 at half time but Tigers could not last the pace and wilted in the second half.  A last play consolation try by Varndell gave the 27-19 score line some unwarranted gloss.

Equally the Premiership final was over before it began, Tom Voyce pounced on a fumbled ball and raced away for a try to add to Mark Van Gisbergen’s penalty and it was 10-0 after 5 minutes.

2006/07: Tigers only ever League & Cup double ended the club’s longest trophyless spell since the initial John Player Cup win in 1979.

Pat Howard was back as coach and the playing squad had seen a lot of change.  Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni joined that summer, with Alejandro Moreno signed the season before & Julian White, giving us 4 international props.  Chuter and Buckland were still the hookers.  With Johnson gone and Louis Deacon spending the first 2 months of the season at flanker the locks were Leo Cullen, Jim Hamilton and Ben Kay; another 4 internationals. 

Tom Croft made his debut a season before but really emerged in 07 with 13 appearances, whilst Jordan Crane joined from Leeds in the summer.  Corry and Moody were still at their peak and were joined with Shane Jennings who earned his first cap for Ireland at the end of the year.  Luke Abraham and Brett Deacon were young, local and committed players.
2006/07 Squad

Fly halfs Andy Goode and Ian Humphreys divided the fans with Paul Burke a solid option who steered the side to a thrilling Cup Final win against Ospreys.  Scott Bemand & Harry Ellis were neck and neck at scrum half with Frank Murphy a competent 3rd choice.   Ben Youngs made his debut that season at 17 during an injury crisis that forced Tigers into the Heineken Cup final with Murphy starting and no cover on the bench.

The wing options were scary with Rabeni, Tuilagi, Varndell and Lloyd plus Geordan & Johne Murphy.  The centres saw Dan Hipkiss have his annus mirabilis earning a spot in England’s World Cup squad; Ollie Smith was older, wiser and versatile filling in at 12 as often as 13.  Daryl Gibson was the main 12 with Matt Cornwell providing cover.  Rabeni & Lloyd of course could also cover the centres.

The season was one game from perfection; the Anglo-Welsh Cup was secured with wins against Sale and for my money the best final Twickenham has ever seen as we beat Ospreys 41-35 in a see saw game; the Premiership grabbed in decisive fashion as Bristol then Gloucester were dispatched.

The Heineken Cup was different.  It took a trademark Tom Varndell faint and go to beat Stade Francais in a classic quarter final; undefeated Llanelli were aggrieved at having to travel for the semi but sent home 33-17.  Having scored 40+ points on each visit to Twickenham and 7 tries the week previous Tigers were huge favourites going into their 4th European final.  No tries and Tigers were mugged twice at the front of the line out as Wasps secured their second Heineken Cup & their second heart breaking win against the Tigers.

2009/10: Tigers completed a 3rd title in 4 years when a late Dan Hipkiss try gave Tigers the lead in the Final for the 6th and final time.  Saracens, the opponents, had sportingly let Hipkiss prove his fitness in an A League semi final against them when he was not technically qualified. 

Richard Cockerill’s first full season in charge and the now traditional injury crisis famously forced Craig Newby to the centres in a Heineken Cup match against the Ospreys that also saw Billy Twelvetrees given his First XV debut on 15 minutes notice. 

The crucible of the modern team, this year saw Anthony Allen & Geoff Parling’s arrival, Ben Youngs establish himself as first choice, Dan Cole overtake Julian White and Tom Youngs started his first game at hooker.
2009/10 Squad

The backrow saw Ben Woods and Lewis Moody battled it out at no.7, Jordan Crane and Tom Croft had the other backrow positions nailed down with Craig Newby and Brett Deacon providing cover.  Geoff Parling’s performance against South Africa saw him play every game for the rest of the season at lock, with Ben Kay, Louis Deacon and Calum Green his partners.

Lote Tuqiri was the major in season signing, injury dispensation in the salary cap when Geordan Murphy was injured meant Tigers had the room to splash the cash.  Aaron Mauger started the season as first choice at 12 but an ongoing back injury forced him out and Anthony Allen barely missed a step in his place.  Matt Smith came into the centres from the wing and of course Dan Hipkiss was still around.

Toby Flood was undisputed no.1 number 10 but Jeremy Staunton over saw an unprecedented 3 games tryless whilst Flood recovered from a snapped Achilles tendon.  George Ford became Tigers youngest ever First XV player on his debut against Leeds.

The injury ravaged draw with the Ospreys cost Tigers a place in the European knockouts, the first time in a non-Rugby World Cup year, but the season was not without highlights; World Champions South Africa visited to officially open the new 10,000 capacity Cat Stand.  Manu Tuilagi set up Lucas Amorosino’s try as Ben Youngs kicked 17 points for an unforgettable night.

Current Squad: The current squad sees 4 international props in Ayerza, Mulipola, Rizzo & Cole, backed up with Fraser Balmain, Tom Bristow and Tiziano Pasquali.  We have 2 international hookers with Youngs & Ghiraldini plus Neil Briggs, a Saxon, as 3rd choice.

4 clear first choice locks are internationals Geoff Parling & Louis Deacon plus two men surely destined for higher honours in Ed Slater & Graham Kitchener.  5 internationals in Croft, Mafi, Crane, Barbieri & Matera are challenging for the back row plus uncapped Gibson & first choice flanker Salvi.

Ben Youngs is clear first choice at scrum half with support from David Mele and Sam Harrison.  Fly half sees intense competition between Owen Williams and Freddie Burns.

At centre Manu Tuilagi is a law unto himself, but Christian Loamanu has been signed to replicate him as much as possible.  Anthony Allen will be the first choice 12 barring unforeseen injuries with new old boy Bai providing cover along with youngsters Hepetema and Pohe.  Matt Smith provides his brand of unfussy team centred play.

The back three is jam packed with talent: Goneva, Morris, Tait, Scully, Thompstone, Benjamin, Camacho and Hamilton without even dipping into the academy or requiring a centre to cover.
Current Squad

So these are my suggestions; what do you think?  What was our greatest squad?  Can you look past the depth at hooker we had with Cockerill & West, are the 4 international props we have now better than the 4 we had in 2007?  Even with 5 internationals is our current backrow really comparable with Moody, Back & Corry? 

Currently wing has plenty of options but are the ones likely to play better than Hackney & the Underwoods or Lloyd?

There is a good case that this squad is not the strongest in any area but has very few weaknesses.  There is a school of thought that says Tigers should sacrifice depth for more world class talent.  I cannot agree with that; we have enough world class talent like Manu, Croft, Parling, both Youngs and various props we just have to get them onto the field for the Champions Cup group stages and then the knock out games after Christmas.

And that is easier said than done.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Transfers: A summer update

Tigers have had another busy summer in the transfer department with 8 players joining the club and 15 moving on to pastures new.

After last season’s disappointing season Richard Cockerill has decided to splash out to capture 7 internationals.  With an extra £500,000 of salary cap money to spend Cockerill took advantage of internal strife at Treviso to prize 4 top class internationals from the Italian’s mitts, whilst also replacing playmakers Toby Flood and Dan Bowden with international options.

Tigers headline signing is England fly half Freddie Burns who joins from perennial rivals Gloucester.  Burns had a disappointing season, being kept out by Ryan Mills at Gloucester, but his performance in England’s first test with New Zealand has reassured many that Burns is a quality operator.

Burns is a Bath native but left his home town club for Gloucester at age 18; breaking into the Cherry ‘n’ Whites First XV in 2009 he made 98 starts in 5 seasons.  Burns is a running threat at fly half with his chip kick a particular favourite, but will have to prove his reliability under pressure; question marks have been raised over his temperament and equilibrium. 

Taking second billing is 67 cap Italian international hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini who joins from Treviso.  The Italian started his career at Petrarca in his birthplace of Padova; in 2005 he joined Calvisano who he captained to the 2008 Italian Championship.  After the untimely demise of the Lombardy club he moved to Treviso where he added a second Scudetto before the Benetton boys joined the Pro12 in 2010.

Ghiraldini comes to provide competition to Tom Youngs as first choice hooker, replacing Rob Hawkins in the squad.  The Italian has a similar reputation to Youngs: a tough carrying, ball of energy with some fans questioning his throwing at the highest levels.

Treviso provides three other recruits this term: outside back Christian Loamanu, number 8 Robert Barbieri and prop Michele Rizzo. 

Most exotic is Christian Loamanu, a Tongan born Japanese winger; he has drawn comparison to Alesana Tuilagi with his bullocking style.  He has also been subject to notable controversy, such as a nightclub brawl with a female professional wrestler and being banned for life from Rugby in Japan for taking Marijuana “and other chemical substances” whatever they might be. 

His comparatively banal European career has seen him spend 3 seasons in the Top 14 with Toulon before 2 seasons splitting time between centre, wing and the backrow for Treviso in the Pro12. 

Keeping up in the confusing nationality stakes is Robert Barbieri.  Know as Bob he was born and raised in Toronto before being spotted by Italian scouts on a Canada Under 19s tour to Europe.  Barbieri has been Treviso’s regular number 8 in recent seasons but is more than comfortable on the flank gaining 30 of his 37 Italy caps there thanks to the presence of a certain Sergio Parisse.

Last but not least amongst the Treviso joiners is prop Michele Rizzo.  31 year old Rizzo is perhaps best known for getting red carded in this year’s Six nations encounter after punching Stade Francais’s Rabah Slimani.  Rizzo, like compatriot Ghiraldini, is from the Italian rugby heartland of Veneto.  Starting out with Petrarca, where he was captain, he joined Treviso in 2009.  Rizzo takes Boris Stankovich’s place in the squad as experienced cover for Marcos Ayerza.

Dan Bowden’s departure to Japan is offset by the arrival of wily veteran Seremaia Bai, the 35 year old Fijian Fly half-cum-inside centre has won 57 international caps.  Tigers will be Bai’s 8th club in 7 countries after a well travelled career that has seen him play for Cross Keys in Wales, Eastern Suburbs in Australia, Tailevu Knights in Fiji, Southland in New Zealand and Secom Ruggets in Japan.

Bai joins from Castres in France.  Last year he played the full 80 minutes in their upset victory against Toulon; this year he came off the bench to take Castres back to the final with a beautifully struck drop goal in extra time to break Montpellier’s hearts.

Tigers’ summer business is completed with two rough diamonds.  Laurence Pearce is a 6”3’ 20 stones wrecking ball No.8 signed from Rotherham; originally from Kesteven he tried his hand at league with Hull F.C. before switching back to Rugby.  Aniseko Sio is a Samoan loosehead prop who signs from Samoan club Vaimoso.  Both will aim to impress in the Extras and force their way into the First XV like Steve Mafi, Logo Mulipola and Ed Slater before them.

In: Freddie Burns (Gloucester), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Treviso), Christian Loamanu (Treviso), Robert Barbieri (Treviso),  Michele Rizzo (Treviso),  Seremaia Bai (Castres), Laurence Pearce (Rotherham),  Aniseko Sio (Vaimoso)
Out: Toby Flood (Toulouse), Thomas Waldrom (Exeter), Dan Bowden (Yamaha Jubilo then Auckland Blues), Boris Stankovich (Newport), Rob Hawkins (Newcastle), George Chuter (Retirement), Scott Steele (London Irish), Ryan Bower (Worcester), Joe Cain (Retirement), Michael Noone (Unknown), Jerome Schuster (Tarbes), Pasqualle Dunn (Unknown), Lucas Guillaume (Unknown), Henry Purdy (Gloucester), Harry Rudkin (Unknown)
Ins: 8
Outs: 15