Dismiss Freddie, Sydney success and four other lessons from Leicester Tigers win over Wasps

The Leicester Tigers completed the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership regular season where they started it – in a top spot.

The blistering 20-10 win over Wasps set up a delicious derby with Northampton Saints back at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday.

Here, rugby player John Wiffen looks at things we’ve learned from the 12th home league win of an incredible season so far and picks up on a few key learnings …

Never out of second gear

There is an eternal debate in sport, is victory always enough? Or is the performance more important than the outcome? Steve Borthwick is certainly a subscriber to the latter, saying he focuses on the development of his side from week to week, rather than the wins or losses that come from the back of it.

From that point of view, it was disappointing to see some uncharacteristic errors in the Tigers ’performance on Saturday that kept the team from building pressure (and points) against a Vespers underpowering team.

For example, three alignments went awry, either due to overturning or poor catch. Tighten these loose ends beforehand, and a few knocks in the back and all of a sudden it’s probably a 25-point win.

However, where only the knockouts remain, stumbling to two 20-10 wins over the next two weeks would not bother anyone in Leicestershire. From now on, winning is all that matters.

Montoya and Clare

There was shock and concern that there was talk of a Julian Montoya strike that kept him out of the team for Wasp’s visit to Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

After Nic Dolly’s horrific injury against the Newcastle Falcons the last thing Steve Borthwick needs is another frontline hooker being on the medical table. However, there were two encouraging points for that purpose over the weekend. At first, Clare was very good, doing a long shift and completing her work to a high standard.

A couple of lineouts fell off, but he also hit some hard targets 15 yards away, so he’ll be generally happy with his job. The second is more abstract. Borthwick chooses not to give information about injuries, but the choice to leave Clare for 74 minutes may be evidence of Montoya’s injury. Surely if Montoya’s injury had been serious, then he would not have left his third (but suddenly first) first-choice pick on the field for 74 minutes with such a serious game next week.

This is conjecture, but we hope that the Gladiator from Buenos Aires is once again fit to face the Saints.

Rear row force in depth

At this stage of the season, there is nothing better than strength in depth to move players into their best form. The Leicester Tigers have this all over the park, but perhaps nowhere more than in the sidelines, where George Martin has just returned from injury.
He only adds to the dynamic duo of Tommy Reffell and Hanro Liebenberg. Both of the latter claim to be on the Gallagher Premiership team of the season, and Martin claims to be the best young player at the club.

On Saturday, Martin showed exactly why he was fielded by Eddie Jones just 19 years old. He was a threat to Vespers’ momentum around the ruck. The best example of this was a cracking tackle on a loose Tom West just eight minutes into Wasps’ goal line.

These kinds of gear can encourage the crowd, but they do more than that. If West makes five yards along the corner as he normally would, Dan Robson’s subsequent box kick is likely to go 10 yards further. These little details form games at the highest level.

Porter is the real thing

There aren’t many players in the game today who can adapt to different positions as well as Guy Porter. The English-qualified back started the season as an option for the 23, but ends it as some Borthwick will find a position in his team, taking care of the shirt number later.

In defense and attack he excels, and Saturday was probably his best performance in the green, red and white stripes. In just two minutes he showed his subtle strength and light foot to break through three tackles before weaving around an unfortunate attempt by Paolo Odogwu.

Defense seems to be his strength though. Twice he made possible test-saving kits, on Sam Spink and Brad Shields. Porter is a prime example of a player who has listened to coaching advice and progressed this season because of it. After the roaring success of both Porter and Harry Potter, if I were the Tigers scout department, I would trash everything and send every scout I had to Sydney University!

George Ford of the Leicester Tigers
George Ford of the Leicester Tigers

Ford focused on silver shipping

It’s hardly a shock to say that when your fly half scored ten points in a game that you score ten points to say their boot won you the game. However, in this case, it was Ford’s boot in an open game that struck the game-defining blows.

In the first half, in which Tigers held most of the territory, he continually won kick-offs (assisted magnificently by Freddie Steward). Every time Charlie Atkinson or Dan Robson kicked long into the middle of the home side, Ford returned it with interest, either finding grass or the five-meter canal with wobbly regularity.

In knockout rugby, there is nothing more important than territory, demonstrated in 2019 by South Africa’s kicking strategy, and Ford learned a lot during the final of that tournament. Going into the final two games of this season, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Tigers ’defense, arranged by Ford’s kicking, could win or lose them the league title.

It looks like the England ace is steel-focused on signing his second spell at the club with silveware.

Maldungi Freddie

Quite rightly, a lot is being done from Freddie Steward’s dexterity under a high ball and his solid last line of defense. But there is another side to his game that has developed quietly this season.

While his attempt at Wasp was a run to the unmanned right corner, he still had to arrive on time and execute – something that players on both sides did not do with much ease through the eighty minutes.

It takes the defense to seven tries in 19 Tigers appearances this season, when you also take into account his Test attempts, he has managed 10 of 27 games. That’s an amazing hit rate for any back-and-forth three-player, but especially for one so young and playing in high-pressure games, week after week.

And finally, Northampton are waiting …

After a 65-26 win at Franklin’s Gardens against Newcastle, the Saints of the Road will walk on the Tiger patch full of confidence this weekend. Northampton are the formative team in the Premiership now. Although a Falcons side’s 10-try failure in a free fall wasn’t exactly an ideal preparation for a knockout game, Tigers were definitely tougher tested by Wasps who could give them an edge by entering the eagerly anticipated East Midland encounter.

It would be a pity if the outside side won, but they have more than a chance. Borthwick will have his troops under no illusions that it is a predicted conclusion.

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