Just 1 game into the season and change is already afoot at Welford Road. Following an embarrassing defeat to Exeter in Round 1, Leicester Tigers announced that they had parted company with head coach Matt O’Connor with immediate effect.
This has not been a great time for Tigers; they have not been the superpower they used to be for a number of years now and last year missed out on a place in the Premiership playoffs for the first time since 2005. I would argue that the squad they had last season and this season are the strongest they have had in a while, but in such a competitive league there is no guarantee they will be able to make the top 4 this season. But was now the right time to move on?
Odd that Leicester part ways with Matt O'Connor 1 game into the season, looking form the outside in as a general ru… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…
Honestly, I would have moved on in the summer. Ever since the popular Aaron Mauger was moved on following making the playoffs with a weaker team and replaced with O’Connor, I have had the feeling that something did not feel quite right at the club. Reports have suggested that players and coaches felt restricted under O’Connor and that seemed to be backed up by Ben Kay speaking on Rugby Tonight. Kay – a member of the Tigers board – also mentioned that they had a review at the end of last season and a number of actions were put into place, which O’Connor had said he could achieve, but following the preseason and the Exeter match they felt that these actions were not being met, so it was time to move on. I really appreciated Kay’s honesty and hearing him talk about how once they had made their decision it would not have been right to wait a few weeks made sense to me.
The important thing now is that the next man up is given every opportunity. Geordan Murphy has been an assistant coach at the club since 2013 and has consistently been in charge of the club in the Anglo-Welsh Cup as well as being in charge for a game against Bath just after O’Connor had arrived. He is Leicester through and through and will want to do everything to bring the glory days back, while he also has a number of other former Tigers players on the coaching staff. I really hope that, barring disaster, Murphy is given the whole season and that making the playoffs does not become the be all and end all in the board’s decision as to whether he gets the job on a permanent basis. One of the areas Kay mentioned that O’Connor seemed to struggle was in the development of young players, something that I’m confident Murphy will be able to do well. Speaking as a fan of rugby in general, hopefully this season will be about performances and player development and then next year they can look to focus more on getting back to winning silverware. Only time will tell.
The 2017/18 edition of the Anglo-Welsh Cup kicked off this weekend with a number of high scoring matches. On Saturday the defending champions Leicester welcomed Gloucester to Welford Road for a match that eventually finished 26-24 in favour of the Tigers after a late missed penalty from Gloucester fly half Lloyd Evans.
As is the way with the Anglo-Welsh Cup these days, both teams put out a number of youngsters and academy players, with a smattering of more experience players who have had limited time on the pitch so far this season, either due to competition at their position or due to injury. For Leicester, Joe Ford got his first meaningful game time since his move from Yorkshire Carnegie, whilst Gloucester welcomed back flanker Ross Moriarty for his first game since picking up an injury against the Provincial Barbarians in the first match of the Lions Tour.
The vast majority of Gloucester’s experience in their starting XV was to be found in their pack, where Moriarty – who is himself only 23 – was joined by Gareth Evans, Paddy McAllister, Gareth Denman and James Hanson. In the backs only centre Andy Symons would be considered an experienced player, though Ben Vellacott is quickly gaining experience and looks like he will be a regular in the squad this season. Unfortunately for the cherry and whites, this lack of experience behind the forwards probably cost them the game.
Gloucester have frequently this season been willing to play the ball from anywhere on the pitch, including inside their own 22. This same mindset was very evident once again at Welford Road. Unfortunately, while the willingness to play rugby is great to see, the execution was nowhere near the level required and Tigers were frequently able to benefit from winning the ball back in great field position, allowing them to keep the scoreboard turning over.
I haven’t seen much of Lloyd Evans before this match, but I have heard a lot of good things about him. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed by him on this showing. We have already seen this season that Ben Vellacott is not a scrum half that will regularly be playing the territory game, instead choosing to look for quick ball away from the breakdown and quick tap-and-go penalties. This is fine, providing your 10 is then willing and able to control where the game is played, but Evans seemed too focused on trying to play rugby. A Freddie Burns-esque chip over the defence is great to see but it is a risky play and not something that should be attempted inside your own 22. The Leicester line-out was anything but reliable this weekend and if Gloucester had piled the pressure on them by kicking to touch and playing for territory, I’m fairly certain that they would have come away with he victory. To compound his bad day, Evans also missed a pair of penalties – not easy, but definitely kickable – which would have sent Glaws home with the win.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m blaming Evans for the loss, everybody is going to have a bad game at some point, but it showed how important it can be for a young fly half to have an experienced back with him to help control the game. A lot of the Gloucester backs ave been playing regular rugby due to injury issues so far this season, but it may benefit Evans to bring in Billy Twelvetrees for the next match in place of Andy Symons in order to help control the game.
Depth in the back row
In my opinion, Gloucester’s best player on Saturday was flanker Jake Polledri. The former Italian U20s player signed from Hartpury RFC in the summer and has really taken his chances well when called upon so far this season. With Moriarty returning to fitness and Gareth Evans also looking OK in his first start of the season before going off following a collision with Fred Tuilagi, Gloucester are full of depth in the back row, despite Matt Kvesic and Sione Kalamafoni both leaving in the summer.
While there is nobody standing out as a proper ‘jackal’ style 7 so far, Lewis Ludlow has been huge in defence and currently tops Opta’s Premiership Rugby stats with 114 tackles – 16 more than his closest competitor – so if I was asked to pick my ideal Gloucester 23 assuming everyone was fit, he would be joining Moriarty and Ruan Ackermann in my starting back row. This then leaves Jacob Rowan, Ben Morgan, Polledri, Evans and Freddie Clarke (who showed on Saturday that he can also cover second row) all competing for the back row cover on the bench… which Tom Savage could also theoretically cover if Jeremy Thrush and Ed Slater start at lock. What makes this depth even better is that many of these players are still relatively early in their careers, so can hopefully continue to grow and improve at Kingsholm over the next few years… though Moriarty will likely be heading back to Wales due to the new eligibility criteria for the national team.
Taking the chance given
The Anglo-Welsh Cup is not about putting out your strongest lineup in order to win some silverware, this is a competition about letting the youth gain some first team experience and letting some players put their hand up for selection in league or European matches.
I’ve already mentioned Polledri, but I continue to be impressed by the quick ball and quicker thinking of Vellacott and think it’s surely just a matter of time before the Scottish national team come calling. Tom Hudson did not get many chances to impress in this game, but he seemed much more comfortable than when I watched him in Europe a few weeks back and he ran a superb line for his try – even if the pass from Vellacott was probably forward!
For Leicester, Joe Ford surely knows that he will find his opportunities limited behind younger brother George, but he has shown that he can control a game well and will surely get more game time in the league as the season progresses and they decide to rest some of their internationals. Jonah Holmes also signed from Carnegie over the summer but has struggled to break into the first team with the form of Jonny May and Nick Malouf on the wings, but looked good in this game and took his chance when it came to show why he was the top try scorer in the Championship last season. Adam Thompstone and full back Afa Pakalani will also hope their form in this game makes Matt O’Connor consider rotating his back 3. Looking to the younger lads, the latest Tuilagi to play at Welford Road, Fred – son of Freddie – was well dealt with by Gloucester but showed a few flashes of the talent that he will be as he continues to develop and will surely live up to the family name, while Charlie Thacker – younger brother of hooker Harry – impressed with some good handling and took his try very well in the first half as 3 Gloucester players failed to complete the tackle on him.
Meanwhile, on a similar note, Johan Ackermann and Matt O’Connor both stepped back for this tournament and allowed Head of Academy Richard Whiffin and Assistant Coach Geordan Murphy respectively to take charge. This is a great chance for both coaches to further their own development in the game and both look to be talented in this area. Whether they move on to other clubs in the next few years or eventually take over from the current bosses, I think the future is as bright for these 2 coaches as for some of the young players on the pitch.