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.
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.
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.
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.
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.