Amidst an emotional and at times raucous Welford Road, Tigers came out on top against their fiercest rivals, Northampton. In the process they secured a Premiership final place for the first time since 2013. Tigers’ dream season rolls on for one last week!
It was the third straight game where Tigers weren’t at their best and yet still found a way to win. The challenge come Saturday’s final is that anything less than their best and it’s unlikely they’ll be lifting the trophy.
Leicester haven’t found their top form since their defeat to Leinster in the Champions Cup. Their basics are so good though that, against most teams, they are still nearly impossible to beat. Huge credit to Steve Borthwick and his coaching team to have Tigers set up to win games even when not at their peak.
For Northampton, they were left rueing missed opportunities. If they’d taken any of the two or three gilt-edged chances they crafted, the scoreboard pressure would have forced Tigers to adapt. Instead, Leicester were able to slowly and steadily wrestle control of the game. Their bench and fitness gave them enough to pull away from Saints in the final twenty minutes.
The scoreline was probably harsh on Northampton, but credit to Leicester for taking their points when the opportunities were there. They played sensible and conservative rugby and it got the job done.
3️⃣ Three positives
1) George Ford’s game management
A full house for George Ford (try, penalty, conversion, drop goal) tells its own tale from Saturday’s win. He is a player who looks completely comfortable in his own skin. He is supremely confident in what he brings to the mix. There was so much to like about his overall game against Saints. Yes, there was defensive wobbles that Tigers will need strategies to protect him with, as Saracens will have noted how Saints cleverly targeted him. But that aside, his overall performance and game management was world class. He’ll need to be at his absolute best once again if we’re to be able to come out on top against Sarries.
2) Jasper Weise’s relentlessness
I’ve been so impressed by Weise’s second half to this season. After getting three yellow cards in quick succession, and starting to worry he was becoming a liability, he has turned his game around. He looks in complete control of everything he’s doing now. None of the aggression has gone, it’s just he’s done the work to ensure it damages the opposition in the right way and doesn’t end up hurting our own team. Against Saints, he was tireless in his running at them, always making yards, always drawing in defenders. Every team needs a few ‘test match animals’ if they want to compete for the top prizes, and you feel he is that for Leicester.
3) The two Freddie’s
Freddie Burns won’t have anticipated being on the pitch after just two minutes, but his arrival and the accompanying back-line reshuffle worked out as well as we could have hoped. Burns has been a brilliant (re)addition to the squad this season. When Ford was away, he stepped up to the plate and delivered. And, now, mostly used as a substitute, he continues to deliver. Similarly, Freddie Steward continues to deliver high quality performances whether at fullback or on the wing. He may not be as glamorous as some other high-profile wingers in the league, but boy does he deliver with consistency. You just know what you’re going to get from him. He might not always be at his absolute best, but—similar to Tigers as a team—his basics are so good and so secure, that he never drops below a 7 out of 10. All told, both Freddie’s have been a real point of difference for Tigers this season.
2️⃣ Two areas for improvement
1) Tidy up set piece
Both the lineout and scrum had a few wobbles on Saturday. We have struggled for a while now when opponents decide to compete against our lineout. You can be sure Maro Itoje will be intent on wreaking havoc come the final too. We’ll need to get the details around the throw, timing of the jumps, all perfect if we don’t want to have one of our key platforms taken away from us. The scrum took a while to gain the ascendency too against inexperienced opposition. How much of that was genuine struggles and how much was the ref not knowing what he was doing, is up for debate!
2) Adding more variety to our game
Tigers aren’t a team that currently have multiple ways to win. We have variations on plan A, but it’s hard to see a definitive plan B or C. Which makes us vulnerable. If Saracens are able to blunt plan A, similar to how Leinster did (and most teams have, to a degree, in recent weeks), it’s hard to see how we’ll be able to shift our approach to get the ascendency we’ll need against them. I don’t expect many surprises come Saturday, but if we want to progress next season, you feel we need to focus on adding some new layers to our game.
1️⃣ One talking point
1) Should Dan Kelly have started?
When it comes to both selection and health and conditioning, it’s hard to level much criticism at the Tigers coaching team. I was surprised to see Dan Kelly in the starting lineup though on Saturday. Hamstring injuries can be notoriously tricky to return from and throwing Kelly straight back in for his first game back felt risky. I understand why Borthwick will have wanted him back. My view is that the more prudent approach would have been, at most, to bring him on from the bench instead. Starting a semi-final, with all the additional intensity, didn’t seem the sensible way to handle his return. As a result, it is almost certain he now misses the final too.
Thanks for reading,
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