Five major reasons why Leicester are champions of England again
Olden golden despite ‘youth warning’
We’re frequently told how rugby is increasingly becoming a younger man’s game. Leicester, for instance, had two starting 21-year-olds in Freddie Steward and Ollie Chessum, but Tigers also demonstrated in the Premiership at Twickenham that olden is still very much golden. You had 39-year-old Richard Wigglesworth industrious as the starting nine, the 35-year-old Chris Ashton providing energy on the wing, another 35-year-old in tighthead Dan Cole, and a pair of sub 32-year-olds bringing home the victory in replacement half-backs Freddie Burns and Ben Youngs.
And yet, the future, according to Steve Borthwick, is youthful. “There’s a lot of growth in this team,” he cautioned post-game. “The average age is 25 years old through the season. There is almost a 15 you can pick that is 21 years old, 22, somewhere around there. There is a lot of growth in those players because they are really keen and want to get better.”
Maybe. Then again, one of Leicester’s major singings for their 2022/23 title defence is Jimmy Gopperth… who turns 39 in ten days’ time.
From calling in the cops to glory
One takeaway from Twickenham is that when it came to garnering support from the neutrals in attendance in the bumper crowd, Leicester was the clear beneficiary. There is just something about Saracens that limits their support base, that they very much remain an acquired taste despite their fine achievement in making a top-flight final just twelve months after finishing their punishment year in the Championship.
Amid the raucous outpouring of Leicester joy, though, and there was plenty as their excellent supporters generated a cracking atmosphere throughout the match, it shouldn’t be forgotten that even the famed Tigers’ support can have its fickle element.
It was just three years ago when the club had to call in the cops to tackle the avalanche of social media abuse that materialised when Tigers faced the first of their two consecutive eleventh-place Premiership finishes, Tom Youngs at the time insisting: “No family members are deserving of being pulled into that criticism and nothing of the sort myself and players have received in recent weeks is appropriate, ever.”
We saw the exact opposite Saturday, team and fans tellingly united as one and then everyone teary-eyed when the recently tragically bereaved Youngs emerged to help with the trophy lift. It was a poignant reminder of just how the game in England is generally so much better off with a strong and prosperous Leicester. When they do things correctly they are a classy bunch.
Not protecting ball well enough
Ball protection is a must on big rugby days and if there was a statistic that highlighted why Saracens weren’t winners, it was their concession of a whopping 17 turnovers, a very un-Saracens like weakness, compared to just seven from Leicester. It wasn’t just one London club player having a ‘mare, it was a wounding malaise across their team as nine of their starting XV had a TC attributed to them.
Half-back was their greatest spoilsport area. Whereas the four Leicester half-backs – the starting Wigglesworth and George Ford, and the backup Youngs and Burns – were clean in this aspect of the game, Owen Farrell conceded three turnovers, Davies two and sub scrum-half Ivan van Zyl one for a total of six cough-ups by the Sarries half-backs. That inaccuracy was costly.
The stats according to Billy
Out-of-favour England No8 Billy Vunipola is a marmite character – fans either like or dislike him with no in-between. He was immense on the ball in the Premiership final, his stats jumping off the chart. He was credited with 107 metres off 24 carries, advancement for Saracens that included eleven passes, one clear break six defenders beaten and four offloads. On paper, he eclipsed his opposite number, Jasper Wiese, by a country mile in these areas because the South African managed just 18 metres from a dozen carries, four passes and three defenders beaten.
And yet, despite that major disparity, it was the gap-toothed Wiese who was awarded the official man of the match. What gave? Simply put, the Leicester forward scored a crucial try whereas Vunipola didn’t and the Saracen also conceded two turnovers. Then there were their respective defensive numbers. Wiese was credited with ten tackles and perfect discipline while Vunipola made six and had a penalty given against him for playing the nine.
One viewer who would have delighted in Wiese getting the post-game recognition was Jan McGinity, the former Leicester recruitment tzar who was responsible for bringing the No8 to the Premiership. “He was quite unknown and under the radar,” he said to RugbyPass in January.
“We signed him and he played the Bulls the following week opposite (Duane) Vermeulen and was man of the match. He did one tackle where he absolutely nailed Vermeulen and was just standing over him and I remember Steve ringing me going, ‘We have got our man! That is the type of guy I want’.”
Tale of two yellow cards
It’s curious to reflect that of the two tries (one converted), four penalty kicks and one drop goal scored in the Premiership final that Leicester ‘won’ 15-3 during the yellow card periods whereas Saracens ‘won’ 9-0 when it was a 15-versus-15 contest. Yellow cards are supposed to hurt and there was no stopping the Tigers’ pick-and-drive during the ten-minutes Saracens were minus Davies.
This type of dominance didn’t materialise, though, when the tables were numerically turned coming down the finishing straight. Rather than it being an advantage to Saracens with Matt Scott binned, Leicester became a 14-man aggressor and their movement on and off the ball in their late, decisive sweep was enthralling, something that should become a textbook illustration regarding how best to respond after someone on your team has seen yellow.
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