BY RORY LEADBETTER
Amidst the wage reductions debates and classic match replays, the confirmation of Steve Borthwick’s July start date at Welford Road as Head Coach would have rightly brought a sense of relief and optimism to Tigers fans last week.
Few in Leicester question the pedigree or suitability of the former England captain – being regarded as a world-leading lineout tactician and the forwards coach to a side that obliterated an All Black pack only six months previous is hard to argue against in the East Midlands.
Alongside international player transfers, board-level departures and stadium redevelopments, the Tigers faithful will expect to see significant improvements on the field next season under the former Saracens captain. It’s a huge challenge and one that most Leicester fans will accept in taking time to embed.
Now rewind to January 2019, where similar aims and ambitions were spoken from a humble and conservative Shaun Edwards at various press conferences during the Six Nations launch. Galthie’s men were keen to emphasise the need for patience for their young side to mature, prosper and begin the new legacy of French rugby – something their country was more than happy to allow based on the youthfulness and potential of their squad selection.
Three weeks later, the revamped French side had overturned the World Cup finalists in Paris before emphatically defeating Wales on their own turf. ‘Vive La Revolution!’ were the calls from the French supporters in the wake of their side’s dramatic rejuvenation.
The East Midlander translation may have slightly less pizazz than that, but there are lessons that Borthwick can learn from France in order to hear similar sentiments echoing around Welford Road next season.
Trust in the youth of your squad early on
Many who follow the Top 14 will argue that this recent French rugby resurgence is no great surprise, illustrated by their recent domination of Junior World Championships in 2018 and 2019.
Talent is frighteningly abundant across France, and it is a testament to their academy institutes that nurture young players of world-class potential in the likes of Woki, Bamba and Ntamack who lit up this year’s competition. Although their recent Under 18 English League title may not hold the same accolades as a Junior World Cup, there is no denying that Tigers is also home to some of the country’s most highly-rated young players.
In the likes of Sam Lewis, Joe Heyes and a fit-again Sam Aspland-Robinson, Borthwick has an abundance of young talent that must be utilised in the coming season to galvanize a Leicester side that often seemed to simply run out of ideas on the field.
These players will always have role to play during international breaks and injury crises, but Borthwick may wish to follow Galthie and act bolder with his starting selection immediately in order to showcase his faith in the future of Tigers and a new style of play he wishes to imbed.
Re-focus attention on the bench, not just the starting fifteen
Too often Tigers have been undone by their inability to back up their starting side with genuine threat and impact from the bench. Borthwick must look to recruit proven, high-quality club players that can aim to match the squad depth of Exeter and Northampton and provide the impetus needed to close out the last 20 minutes of matches. W
hether it be a lightning burst from Serin or a crucial turnover from the imposing duo of Chat and Poirot, Galthie’s men were winning second half battles this year with the energy and dynamism we have not seen from Les Bleus for a very long time. Tigers will always have an incredibly strong XV on paper when fit, but now the eight players backing them up from the bench are more important than ever.
Borthwick must mirror Galthie’s refocus on his substitutes and decide whether this Tigers squad have such an impact already in the form of White, Leatigaga and the ever-improving Reffell. If not, he and Murphy need to look further-afield quickly to source those invaluable impact subs.
Select a younger captain to inspire your side
No one in the current Leicester squad has given more to the cause than Tom Youngs over recent seasons. The former Lion remains the heartbeat of his local side and will continue to offer an uncompromising and reliable option at hooker next season, but Borthwick must look at the opportunity to move leadership away from Youngs and place it in the hands of a more youthful individual that can inspire his team to play to their absolute potential.
Enter Charles Ollivon – it would be hard to identify a forward outside himself and arguably Tipuric that offered such dogged defence, intelligent support play and willingness to attack as much as the 26-year-old so far this year. The Toulon talisman has been a giant for club and country in 2019 and has brought out the best performances to date from the ‘old guards’ of Le Roux and Willemse. Borthwick will also be only too aware of the significance and impact such a young captain can have on your side, having first captained Bath at the age of just 25.
In the East Midlands, 27-year-old Will Spencer is a clear captaincy candidate and sheer giant of a man, who would be only too happy to follow in the footsteps of Johnson and Richards in leading his side out onto Welford Road. Don’t be surprised to see the influential and imposing 24-year-old Handro Liebenberg – having previously captained the Springbok Under 20 side – put his hand up for leadership selection if he can remain fit, so too Calum Green who has returned to the East Midlands with real vengeance.
With the likes of Ford and Tuilagi able to offer support when not away from England, the stage could be set for a younger player to push Tigers into their new era under Borthwick and match the magic Les Bleus have displayed already this year.
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