BY Ruaraidh Britton
Nothing lasts forever, and Tigers fans appear to have found out about that old saying in brutal fashion. Often described as the Manchester United of Europe, Leicester Tigers were an English rugby powerhouse, and were feared by teams from around the globe.
In their prime, they won ten English Premiership titles, finished runners up seven times, won back to back European titles in 2001 and 2002, and hold eight Anglo-Welsh Cup titles in their prestigious trophy cabinet. Now they lie eighth in the table, just three points above bottom place Falcons in what has become the tightest relegation battle in recent seasons, and have lost eight games on the bounce after last week’s humbling by Racing 92.
So what exactly kickstarted the monumental downfall of the Tigers? Richard Cockerill wasn’t just any coach, he was ruthless and he was aggressive, but he got what everyone wanted; titles. And those title wins weren’t by flukes either, as Leicester ripped the English league to shreds for almost as long as the Premiership has existed, making nine appearances in a row in the Premiership final, qualifying for the play-offs 12 consecutive times. But alas, the reign was no more and Leicester’s biggest star burnt out as the board decided change was necessary to take the team forward, and Cockerill ventured north to reinvigorate Edinburgh’s title hopes in the Pro14.
Matt O’Connor didn’t just have big shoes to fill, he had a club legacy to protect, and despite putting in a brave fight, his leadership saw Tigers fall out of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade; a humbling experience for a Tigers side containing several England regulars. The East Midlands Derby did the club no favours as well, as the headlines pushed one statistic to the end of the earth and back. “Northampton Saints do the double over Tigers for the first time since 2007.”
For a club with a legacy such as Leicester, things were getting embarrassing, and their failure to keep Matt Toomua at the club has become painfully costly this season in their back line, as their Aussie playmaker sets his sights on a jersey covered in gold and green rather than red white and green. Jonah Holmes put in a spectacular showing on Derby Day at Twickenham, and the likes of Telusa Veainu and David Denton have really shown their worth in the side, as well as a reborn Manu Tuilagi who is boasting his strengths once again.
It’s been three months since I sent this email to Peter Tom @leicestertigers I didn’t get a response (or a bounce back).
The situation isn’t improving. pic.twitter.com/oZqLPcJuJG
— Ian Price (@goatteeboy) December 18, 2018
ut yet with even bigger names like brothers Tom and Ben Youngs, and England stars George Ford, Dan Cole and Jonny May running out regularly and underperforming, it really takes the shine off of what is possibly one of the best squads in the league.
It was never going to be easy going back to back against Parisian giants Racing 92, but the Champions Cup came calling, and Leicester had a duty to attend to. Sadly however, many Tigers fans are now probably wishing they hadn’t bothered. They were humbled at Welford Road, and they were shown to be school boys rather than professionals. Three tries in 20 minutes made for painful viewing, as Finn Russell scored 14 of Racing’s 34 points in a crushing bonus point win, more or less kicking the Tigers out of the competition. And it’s not just this result that’s done the damage, a 41-10 loss to newly promoted Bristol Bears didn’t make for easier reading, nor did the 44-37 loss to Worcester Warriors, or the 40-6 thrashing at Exeter Chiefs.
Defence is never easy in this game, especially when you’re still waiting on a defence coach, but the interviews are being done, and the pieces are being put back together. One big piece of that puzzle looked as if it was going to fall apart, but the decision to keep Geordan Murphy at the club was a wise move, especially given that man’s history at the club.
He lives and breathes Leicester after winning eight league titles as a player, and transitioning to head coach was one of the best moves the club could have made given the way coaches are moving around at the moment. If ever someone has had a monumental task put in front of them however, this is definitely up there as a challenge beyond all means.
Murphy has to find the bite the Tigers have lost, and they have to become the ruthless team that dominated the 2000’s with confidence and swagger. The lack of motivation to go out and win needs to stop, because there’s looking deflated and then there’s looking like Leicester players walking behind their posts after conceding another sloppy try.
The team need to find a way to relax and avoid burning themselves out to avoid the ultimate low of relegation to the Championship. Lions winger Ugo Monye described being relegated with Harlequins in 2005 in all sorts of negative ways, but always spoke of how the team would bond over a pint and not train until they collapsed, and even suggested paintballing of all the activities he could choose from.
Rebuilding a team isn’t impossible, and bringing a team back from the brink isn’t either, but it’s how Murphy does it that he will truly be remembered for as the captain of this stricken ship.