We only went and won the bloody thing! Or, put another way: Leicester Tigers – Champions of England! Yes, after sitting top of the league from week 1, Tigers won a nail-biting contest with Saracens, and turned our table-topping antics into Premiership playoff success. It’s been nine long years, but Leicester are the Premiership champions once more.
Despite being massive underdogs, and certain former players saying that, ‘nine times out of ten, Saracens win this match’, Leicester delivered a strong, astute, resourceful, driven, and powerful performance that left Saracens unable to land a serious blow against us. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the match that they even made it into our 22! We picked a side to play a territory based game and it worked brilliantly. Saracens had their moments of attacking play, but it was nearly always miles away from our try line.
On the occasions when we broke into their 22 though, we were ruthless. Our two tries was powerful and shrewd. Our level-headedness at key moments in the game belied the fact that it was Sarries who were supposed to have that big game experience.
Even when we failed to turn pressure into points in the third quarter, and Sarries gradually edged their way back into the game with a few penalties, we never looked like panicking. In fact, the passage of play following our going down to 14 men, and Saracens drawing level, was a masterclass in working our way back up the field, patiently making the hard yards, relentlessly carving out an opportunity for Freddie Burns to have a decent shot at winning us the game with a drop goal. We looked like old hands. The fact it was so many of your young forwards—Heyes, Chessum, Martin—calmly creating that moment is testament to the quality of players they have become under Borthwick’s tutelage.
And then it was all on Freddie. A similar opportunity in Japan one year ago ended in tears. The drop goal was charged down. Not this time! It may not be the most beautiful kick you’ll have ever seen, but it went through the posts. And after safely navigating the restart, it was Burns again to kick the ball off the field. We had done it!
3️⃣ Three positives
1) Tactical discipline
‘In Borthwick we trust’ has become a bit of a mantra amongst fans as we try to make heads or tails of Borthwick’s team selections from one week to the next. This week more than most raised eyebrows with the selection of Wigglesworth at 9 and no Nadolo in the squad at all. But selection was tied to a clear plan and Wigglesworth and Ashton were deemed the best players to implement that plan. Their selections were vindicated. Without the tension of a final, the kicking contest that ensued could have underwhelmed, but in the context of this game it was a brilliant strategy from Borthwick. And the way the players stuck to the tactical plan was hugely impressive. Everything had clearly been thought about, and yet it didn’t have the feel of players implementing something regardless of what was happening on the pitch. The players were simply well coached and knew exactly what they wanted to do at different moments of the game depending on what they were facing or what opportunities arose.
2) Team pressure
Though Burns rightly won lots of plaudits as the hero who kicked the drop goal that won the game, this was a team performance. Every one of the 23 contributed. And though the likes of Wiese and Montoya delivered epic performances, this was not a day for celebrating individuals. As a team, the amount of pressure we put Sarries under was intense and unending. It didn’t matter whether it was Potter with his kick-chases, Refell with his turnovers, Chessum with his relentlessness, everyone was ensuring Sarries could never settle; never find a rhythm. And this was against world class players. The likes of Itoje and George were shut down. Yes, Billy Vulipola had some good runs, but rarely in parts of the pitch that hurt us. To use the word Mark McCourt used, we suffocated them. We pressured them into playing on our terms and left them unable to get into our 22, let alone ever look like scoring.
3) Never giving up
In Borthwick’s own words, Tigers used to be a team that ‘went away’. They might stay in the contest for a while, but soon enough we’d fail to hold onto winning positions or stay in games. How things have changed. This season, the most our first team has lost by was 9 points. Most was far less. Even when losing, the defeats were close. We hang in there, even when games aren’t going well. And, to be fair, the last few games, Tigers haven’t been at their best. But we’ve found ways to win regardless. The same was true in Saturday’s final. We weren’t on top the whole time—you never are going to be against a side of Saracen’s quality—but we never let the game get away from us. We stuck to our our plans. We kept putting pressure on. We never let our intensity drop. And, at the end, when heads could have dropped with Saracen’s drawing level and Matt Scott heading for the sin bin, we simply embraced the moment, refused to go away, marched up to the other end of the field, and seized our destiny.
2️⃣ Two areas for improvement
1) Turning pressure into points
In the first half, we seized the moment when Saracens were down a man, upped our pace and intensity, and scored two tries in pretty quick succession. In the third quarter, despite an extended period of pressure and territory, we failed to add any points. This included a missed kick at goal (more on that below). In the end, it didn’t end up hurting us. But we could have avoided the game being as close as it was if we’d made sure we came away with more points in that spell. We were undeniably the better team throughout the game. A three point winning margin did not reflect our superiority. We can be thankful that period didn’t come back to haunt us. It’s an important learning for the team though as we look to press on next season. We had a similar spell against Leinster when we lost the Champions Cup quarter final. And that time our inability to turn pressure into points did cost us and stopped us getting back into that game. In the biggest games, we’re going to need to develop a more ruthless edge.
2) Building scoreboard pressure with kicks at goal
If not for two missed penalties and one missed conversion, all kickable, Leicester’s ride to glory could have been much more comfortable. In tight games like this, leaving eight points out there is wasteful. You’ve never going to get every kick, but you couldn’t help but feel nervous about our kickers in comparison to Farrell who you never doubted for a moment would kick his kicks. In the biggest games, and against the top sides, we will need to cut out waste like this. We got away with it on Saturday, but Freddie Burns could have easily been rueing his missed kicks rather than his winning drop goal if the day had panned out differently.
1️⃣ One talking point
1) Yellow cards that should have been red
Earlier in the season both Aled Davis and Matt Scott would have received red cards for their shoulder into head tackles. Instead, both received yellow cards. Despite the high volume of red cards early in the season, there was a definite sense of clarity around what constituted a red card. Recent weeks have seen that clarity disappear. Davis in particular can feel very lucky to have stayed on the pitch. It was a solid, driven shoulder direct to Montoya’s head. There’s was nothing passive about it, despite the fact Montoya was heading his way. For Scott, though far more passive that Davis’s hit—and perhaps a yellow more justified—he would still have seen red earlier in the season. So what now is the bar for a red card? How come head contact is suddenly okay again? Did I miss the update on how hits to the head are going to be refereed now?
Thanks for reading,
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