How Have Leicester Tigers Bounced Back This Season?

In Premiership rugby, there is no team more successful than the Leicester Tigers. The midlands based team have a whopping 10 top flight titles, four more than second place Bath and Wasps.

The Tigers saw huge success in the first 13 years of the 21st century as they added two Heineken cups and three Premiership Rugby cups to their league titles. But in the past decade, the team have dipped massively. After winning the title in 2013, the Tigers lost four straight premiership semi finals as they watched Saracens and Exeter take over the league.

Things quickly got worse for the Tigers, with back to back eleventh placed finishes in 2019 and 2020. In 2020, if it were not for Saracens punishment for breaking the salary cap rules, the Tigers would have been relegated for the first time in their history.

Just two years on from nearing relegation, Leicester currently sit at the very top of the Premiership, with a huge quarter final in the Champions Cup coming up against URC leaders Leinster. So how have Leicester bounced back so spectacularly in such a short time?

How did it get so bad?

Leicester have consistently been at the top or at least challenging for the top four. From 2005 to 2017, the Tigers made the top four every season. Throughout the teams history that have had incredible legends like Martin Johnson, Graham Rowntree, Austin Healy, Tom Croft and many more.

In the 2010s it was stars like Manu Tuilagi, Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Graham Kitchner and Toby Flood leading the Tigers to success. But the Tigers struggled to replace these stars. If you look at the team that started the 2019 season, it had a huge depth of talent. They had lost Matt Toomua, Kitchner, Tom Varndell and Matthew Tait in the summer, while stars like George Ford and Ben Youngs were often away with England.

Leicester just did not focus on bringing through talent properly at the time. They failed to replace aging out stars and the team began to struggle massively. They were also battered by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The team cut all staff wages by 25% and it caused a lot of disruption throughout the team and staff. It caused disruption and anger amongst the players, with stars Manu Tuilagi and Telusa Veainu leaving the club after pay disputes.

The Comeback and How?

After back to back eleventh place finishes, Steve Borthwick’s first season in charge was a success. The Tigers rose to sixth in the Premiership and made it to the final of the Challenge cup, where they fell to Montpellier.

They had hoped for a top four finish this season, but with Saracens returning it was always going to be difficult. Despite this, the Tigers began the season in terrific form, winning their first eleven games in the Premiership before falling to Wasps. They are currently sitting top of the Premiership and have definitely been the best English team this season.

In Europe, the Tigers have won six straight games, including beating Clermont in both legs in the round of six week in April. They are one of the favourites for the title with a huge game against Leinster coming up in May. Leicester have gone from the worst English team to the best in just two years, but how have they done it?

Changes at the very top

Much of their success in the 2010s was down to Richard Cockerill, who had played 250 times for the team before becoming head coach in 2009. But in 2017, Cockerill departed and this is when the chaos began. Leicester quickly moved through three coaches who all struggled before Steve Borthwick was announced as boss in November of 2020.

A Bath and Saracens legend, Borthwick had already been successful in coaching, having been the England forwards coach for the five years prior to taking up the Leicester job. Borthwick was a smart appointment for the club.

He immediately brought a hard nosed approach to the Leicester team. Borthwick would also be given more power than previous managers. He would take over as Director of Rugby, with more decisions on the team.

Smart Additions

With Borthwick in charge of the Tigers, they made some huge moves before the 2020-21 season. Losing Tuilagi was bad, but key players like Sam Costelow, Johnny May, Jake Kerr and Sione Kalamafoni all leaving the club hurt the team lot. It looked like things would just go from bad to worse with these losses.

But Borthwick went out and made really smart moves. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but Leicester made some brilliant signings. Nemani Nadolo was one of them, as Leicester managed to attract the 6ft 5in winger away from Montpellier. The other signing which was announced during the season was Julian Montoya.

It may not have been the flashiest move at the time, but it looks to be by far their best. Montoya has become a key component of the Tigers front row and the team is already looking to extend his contract. Other good transfers include Matias Moroni, Kini Murimurivalu and Matt Scott.

This on its own would a good transfer window. But the Tigers also managed to add Jasper Wiese. A pretty unknown name before he joined the Tigers in 2020, Wiese has become crucial for the Tigers. His ball carrying ability is brilliant and he makes an impact on the game immediately.

Despite all of these transfers, Leicester could only manage sixth the next season. But it was certainly an improvement, with Borthwick leading his Tigers team to the Challenge Cup final where they lost to Montpellier.

So there were still improvements that needed to be made and so Leicester turned to a familiar face. Freddie Burns was with the team from 2014-2017 before leaving for Bath. After a year in Japan, Burns returned to England to rejoin the Tigers. Despite not being first choice, he has been key for the Tigers this season. With George Ford not always available, he has been brilliant when called upon.

It was not the only move the team made. Veteran winger Chris Ashton was brought into the team. Ashton has been one of the best try scorers in Premiership history, despite a questionable disciplinary history.

With the success of Jasper Wiese, the Tigers continued to look at South Africans, bringing in Eli Snyman, Marco van Staden and Francois van Wyk. All of these players have bedded into the system really well and bring an incredible toughness to the team. They may not have made the star studded moves of others, but Leicester have made countless really smart moves to put themselves in this position.

Young English Talent

One of the things that Steve Borthwick has done brilliantly over the past few seasons is developing English talent, and we have to talk about club captain Ellis Genge. Over the past few seasons, Genge has developed into England’s best forward. His disciplinary issues of the past are no more and he has developed into a brilliant player and leader.

Club captain Genge has also been influential in bringing through the talent Leicester have. This season has seen so many young English players become key in this Leicester team. Freddie Steward seems like Leicester and England’s fullback for the next decade, dominating in the air during the Six Nations earlier this year.

Genge has also helped to bring through a crop of talented young English forwards. Nic Dolly, George Martin, Harry Wells and Joe Heyes have all played for England over the past couple of seasons and are playing crucial roles for Leicester this season. The pick of the bunch is Ollie Chessum who joined Leicester from Nottingham this season.

Their academy has also produced brilliant backs, with Jack Van Poortvliet and Dan Kelly having brilliant debut seasons in the Premiership. George Ford has acknowledged just how good the youngsters have been, calling them a “great bunch of young lads”. Leicester have a brilliant team that will continue to get better.

9-10 combination

When you look at the team’s success this season, a huge amount of it is down to their experienced combination at nine and ten. Ben Youngs and George Ford is one of the best duos in the world, with Ford having his best season for the Tigers in a long time. The pair stuck with Leicester through the struggles and are certainly reaping the rewards.

Not only do Leicester have Youngs and Ford, but they are often finishing games with an incredibly experienced duo of Freddie Burns and Richard Wigglesworth. The teams depth all across their backs is good but Burns and Wigglesworth could be starting for more than a few teams in the premiership.

Playing Style

One of the reasons for the teams incredible success this season is that they can beat teams in so many different ways. Starting up front, they bring power and effort throughout the game. Even when the strongest three forwards go off, Leicester have Nic Dolly, Joe Heyes and Nephi Leatigaga in, all internationals.

Jasper Wiese is crucial to how they play, along with Ellis Genge. The two of them are powerful carriers and driver Leicester over the gain line. There are very few teams in the league who can stop either of these two. With gain line advantage, it creates more space and opportunity for Ben Youngs and George Ford.

Youngs brilliant game management is complimented by the creativity and goal kicking of Ford. The two of them are also able to unlock the talent throughout the backs. Dan Kelly, Nemani Nadolo, Kini Murimurivalu and all of their incredible back talent are constantly able to cut open Premiership defences. It means that they can grind out results when they need to, as well as freely scoring tries.

Nadolo is crucial to that, he is third in the Premiership for clean breaks at 18, as well as currently sitting on nine tries already this season. Their forwards have also been scoring well, with Nic Dolly and Julian Montoya both sitting on seven tries, the same as Quins centre Andre Esterhuizen.

So how have Leicester done this comeback?

There are so many different reasons for Leicester turning things around so quickly. Ellis Genge, George Ford and Ben Youngs have played crucial roles in the comeback. The brilliant leadership of Steve Borthwick has of course played a huge part, so it is no surprise to hear Borthwick linked to the England job.

A lot of their success also comes down to quiet, smart decisions. Over the past couple seasons, Leicester have made brilliant transfers and put themselves into a position to win. Not only that, but they have also developed talent and have the right role models around them.

Can They continue this success

In terms of this season, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot continue this form. The team is surprisingly healthy and as long as they can. While Jaco Taute looks to be out, George Ford’s injury should not keep him out for much longer as the Tigers look to rest and get ready for a busy final schedule.

Even if they do face injuries, the Tigers have brilliant depth throughout. An injury to Ford could be bad, but Freddie Burns has shown to be a brilliant back up and the Tigers have depth throughout.

Looking forward, losing Ford will hurt the team. But Steve Borthwick went out and got a brilliant replacement, bringing in South African world cup winning fly-half Handre Pollard. The more pressing loss for the future is Ellis Genge. Genge returns to his home town team Bristol next year despite the Bears terrible season.

It is a huge loss for the Tigers, but they have Joe Heyes and Nephi Leatigaga to step in for Genge and the aging Dan Cole. The Tigers look great for the future. A core of Freddie Steward, Ollie Chessum, Dan Kelly and all of their other incredible talent will be incredibly successful in the future, even without Genge and Ford.

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