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

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