As Premiership Rugby hits its first ever planned mid-season pause it is a natural time to look back and review the first 21 games of the season. Tigers have won 13 and lost 8, lie 6th in the Premiership table just 4 points from 2nd place, and have knock-out games in the Premiership Rugby Cup and European Champions Cup already secured.
All is rosy in the garden then and, while some other rugby event is going on in the meantime, Tigers fans will be very satisfied as they bed down for the 7-week hibernation?
Tigers’ fans will be rightly nervous that we’ve suffered three heavy defeats this month alone; away to Exeter & La Rochelle as well as at home to Leinster; and could well argue that our league position and win/loss record is flattered by two one-point wins away from home. If Jamie Shillcock’s penalty against Bath had slipped wide & Jarrod Evans’ aim in last week’s win against Harlequins been truer we would have played no worse but have only won 5 league games and sit 8th, well out of it. Even the most optimistic fan would find it tricky to spin that as a good start.
Now if my granny had wheels she’d be a wagon, so pontificating about what ifs is pointless, but Steve Borthwick’s big mantra was that the performances matter and that you shouldn’t be pleased just because you’ve won by a score, or distraught just because you have lost by the same. The performance was the same either way & needs to improve.
The big losses have exposed that Tigers are still some way away from troubling the best sides in Europe, and the only announced transfer business for this summer is losing our best player with no replacement in sight.
But. We did win those games, we are only 4 points off 2nd & we have beaten all four sides currently sitting in the Premiership play off places. There really is no good reason that we can’t regroup, take advantage of a friendly enough fixture list & be coming back from Twickenham on 8th June with the trophy in our kit bag.
If Tigers are to achieve that a key area for us will be to get our best players onto the field more often. So far this season Jack van Poortvliet has not played, Anthony Watson appeared only twice, George Martin made 5 appearances and Dan Cole only 7 times. That is a lot of the Salary Cap to be sitting in the stands rather than on the pitch winning games.
Tigers will also need to improve on getting bonus points. We have the same win/loss record as second place but have failed to get a losing bonus point, for losing within 7 points, in three of our five defeats; and been stranded on 3 tries, one short of the required number for the extra try bonus point, 3 times in the 12 games.
The recent game against Quins did point to Tigers adopting a tactical approach similar to what France will use in the Six Nations, disciplined kicking within their own half but a willingness to get the ball to the opposite touch line when further up the field to stretch the opposition. There was still a disappointing level of accuracy in the basics of catch and pass at times, but the ambition is building and we got our new star winger Ollie Hassle-Collins into the game far more than previously, giving him 16 attacking touches compared to just 3 against Newcastle in December.
The pack may have struggled in that game as England took two of our specialist tighthead props, while the third was injured, but that is unlikely to repeat and the “first choice” pack stood up well to Leinster, basically the Irish national team, the weekend before. Handre Pollard may have been uncharacteristically out of sorts at times recently but we know he has the mettle for the big occasions and the biggest games.
The key when the league returns will be the first two games back, at home to Gloucester & away to Newcastle, where a maximum return of 10 points is the only acceptable outcome. They then face Northampton away, Bristol at home, Sale away & finish with Exeter at home. Given the lack of bonus points mentioned above we may need to squeeze out five wins, which may just be beyond us.
In the mean time we can watch our players in the Six Nations, whilst what is likely to be a young team will travel to Ealing Trailfinders in the Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final looking to ensure there is at least one final to look forward to this season.
Words by Stuart Keene.
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