What a difference automatic relegation makes. But for Saracens getting handed their demotion in January, there would have been quite the nervous hype build-up to Saturday’s Leicester Tigers versus Worcester Warriors meeting.
Halfway through the league campaign, eleventh place Tigers have mustered just 16 points, four less than next best Warriors on 20. Thank God then for the London club and their wonky salary cap accounting.
Without it, this round twelve clash of the strugglers at Welford Road would have had relegation battle written all over it, especially with Leicester coming into it off the back of a chastening 33-point away defeat at Sale last time out.
It’s the way of the world for Tigers under Geordan Murphy, the coach thrust into the hottest of hot seats following the unceremonious sacking of Matt O’Connor in September 2018. There have been 21 defeats in his 32 Gallagher Premiership matches in charge and few major signs of improvement.
Telusa Veainu was at the heart of one of their rare few reasons for cheer, scooping up a misplaced Wasps pass the last day at Welford Road to run the length of the pitch and score Leicester’s match-sealing try in an 18-9 win that could easily have been the other way around and another defeat.
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RugbyPass goes behind the scenes at the Leicester academy
Veainu, though, insists its still early days in the Murphy era, calling on fans not to lose the faith in a figurehead who bleeds Leicester. “100 per cent,” he told RugbyPass. “He has come in and he has sort of been picking up the scraps and sort of blocking the hole in the boat at the moment.
“He has done a fantastic job and we are all right behind Geordie and so are the staff. He is doing what he can do best with the players that he hasn’t picked himself.
“I just want the fans to know that we believe in him and to trust us,” he said, hoping that home advantage can yet again help lift the spirits as it has been in front of their own fans that all three of Leicester’s wins this term have been registered.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 27, 2020
“It’s awesome. I love playing at Welford Road. I’m not being biased or anything but it is my favourite stadium. I have played in a lot of stadiums but this is my favourite. It’s an unbelievable place to play in and there is such a good turnout as well. It shows they are still loyal fans and they still believe in us. It gives us players a big boost.
“We have used some of the recent games to blood some of our young boys coming through from the academy but at the same time we are not happy with where we are on the table. We are taking a lot of pride at the moment in trying to get away from the bottom of the table.
“The mood has been pretty good to be fair. The boys know we have got a big one Saturday, playing at home. It’s not going to be easy.”
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) February 28, 2020
It was 2015, in the wake of a World Cup campaign with Tonga, that Veainu, 29, first pitched up in Leicester after a Super Rugby career failed to take fire.
Stints at the Highlanders, the Crusaders and the Rebels had failed to best mine his raw talent and although his early form at Tigers was most encouraging – nine tries in 19 league appearances – settling in fully was difficult for the South Island-reared New Zealander once injuries kicked in during his second season.
“I was out for a long time being injured so that made it tough for me being away from family and being a bit homesick. But now I’m up and playing, and I have got a young family as well. This is now my home. It has made things a lot easier,” he explained, adding a debt of gratitude to the Tuilagi family for how they helped him integrate.
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“When I first got here at the time there were the Tuilagi boys – you tended to gravitate towards the Pacific Island boys because they know we come from a faraway place and we have come here on our own. We like to be around people and it’s not nice being on your own in a foreign country.
“When I came here the Tuilagi family helped us out, helped me settle here and showed us the ropes really, so it is important when you see young Pacific Island kids come over here that you get them and get an arm around them.
“They can get taken advantage of (when they first come to Europe). We try and make sure we tell them what is required of them and show them the ropes of what Leicester wants from them and what they can do for themselves over here.”
— Gengey (@EllisGenge) June 25, 2019
So settled is Veainu now that he sounds like a tourist guide for the East Midlands countryside. “First of all, the food here is good and so are the people. Personally I like it in the countryside. I live in a little village and it’s nice and quiet and we got a local pub as well. I really enjoy the English countryside.”
The eldest of eleven siblings, Veainu had to battle hard to get to where he is as he wasn’t brought up on easy street in suburban Christchurch. Sport was his release. “I played a lot of sports – cricket, volleyball, touch rugby, rugby league so it wasn’t just all rugby, but rugby ended up being the one that I was alright at.”
Family ties still very much bind. He makes a point of getting home each year to catch up with the family who have since relocated to Auckland, but a visit the other night to kids at Nottingham Moderns RFC as part of Leicester’s involvement in the Project Rugby campaign took him all the way back to yesteryear when he was the kid looking up in awe at the visiting stars.
To help encourage local kids into local clubs and break down barriers to participation, Tigers Community Coaches and members of the senior squad led a series of training sessions for different age groups between Under 7??s and Under 1??6??s at @NMRFC.https://t.co/Y4aFdJ7Iid
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) February 27, 2020
“I love it. Coming down here brings back such a nostalgic feeling from back home. For me at this level it’s about enjoyment, coming down with your mates to train hard and play hard and the most important part bit is hot pies and the fun afterwards.
“I get asked what is your favourite food, what is your favourite colour, who is the fastest on the team. I always say Ellis Genge. No one believes that,” he quipped before reminiscing about his own past.
“I remember when I was young at a local school a few of the All Blacks, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and others coming down. Even Aaron Mauger at one point. It was a big thing. It made you happy seeing players when you’re growing up to realise they are actually normal human beings as well.”
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Now the role is reversed and kids are looking up to Veainu as a player who spells consistent trouble for opposing defenders with his stepping magic. It was sorcery at the 2015 World Cup that was the making of him, Leicester snapping up the then out-of-contract player and turning him into the Premiership force that he has become.
“I love playing for my country. Tonga gave me that lifeline when I had nothing going for me so when I get an opportunity to play for Tonga I put my heart into it and I love playing for them. We are a small nation, very small, and we punch above our weight.
“For me, what has made the difference at Leicester is a little maturity and preparation, my preparation before a game or just throughout my week. Before I would just turn up and play off the cuff but that led to inconsistent performance whereas now I prepare the same, prepare consistently well and I’m able to give those consistent performances.”
- Gallagher Premiership’s Project Rugby has so far reached 45,000 young people, increasing participation in the game by people aged 14-24 from non-traditional audiences
WATCH: RugbyPass goes behind the scenes as Tonga prepares for the 2019 World Cup in Japan
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