There can be no arguments that the 2018/19 season was one that Leicester Tigers will be keen to forget. A perennial playoff side in the Gallagher Premiership, not only did Tigers slip out of the coveted top four spots in the competition, they also failed to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup, a tournament that they have competed in for 22 of the 23 seasons it has existed.
Their one previous omission, the 1998/99 season, was the one season that no English teams competed due to a dispute between the RFU and European Rugby. The 2019/20 season will be the first in the club’s history that they will not be competing in the top tier of European competition due to their own performance.
To heap further misery onto a beleaguered fan base who are more used to lifting trophies than propping up the table, Leicester were also in the relegation mix as the season headed towards its conclusion.
A win over Newcastle Falcons in round 19, combined with three losing bonus points to finish the season, saw Tigers finish 10 points above the ultimately relegated Falcons, but it had been a far tighter affair than that for much of the campaign.
Leicester looked a mile off the pace of the teams in the top half of the table and were it not for Newcastle’s slow start to the season, hosting the likes of Saracens and Exeter Chiefs at Kingston Park and unable to build any early momentum, who knows how the season may have turned out.
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The squad did not lack for talent at the top end, boasting international quality in the likes of George Ford, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May, although the chemistry and effectiveness of the team was certainly lower than the sum of its parts.
Depth was also an issue, as Leicester’s star-studded backline was frequently called upon by their respective international sides. Coupled with inevitable injuries, it was reduced to the bare bones at multiple times in the season.
The coaching staff was in flux, too, as head coach Matt O’Connor was sacked following the 40-6 loss to Exeter Chiefs on opening day, paving the way for Geordan Murphy to takeover. The Tigers legend was initially appointed on an interim basis before taking on the role full-time midway through the season.
Defence coach Phil Blake was added in January and Mike Ford was hurriedly drafted in at the end of March, as the club faced the almost unbelievable possibility of relegation. It was, in short, a complete pig’s ear of a season.
Why, then, should the outlook for the 2019/20 campaign be any brighter? Firstly, the coaching staff is now settled, with Murphy continuing as head coach and Blake, Ford, Mark Bakewell, and Boris Stankovich all remaining in their respective roles, and former Tigers favourite Pat Howard returning to the club to mentor the current coaching team.
There will be no excuses of disruption or needing to bed in, with the staff all in place for pre-season and able to get the players comfortable with playing the style of rugby that they are keen for Leicester to show next season. It’s this campaign – not the last – when Murphy will be judged as a head coach.
In addition to a more settled coaching staff, Leicester have not been shy in their recruitment. The back row duo of Jordan Taufua and Hanro Liebenberg headline the group of incomings and will add significant quality to the club’s starting loose forward trio.
Tomás Lavanini is susceptible to a yellow card or two but will add physicality in the engine room, Calum Green will bring a predatory threat at defensive lineouts and the South African pairing of Jaco Taute and EW Viljoen add positional versatility to a backline that was caught short a number of times last season.
On paper, it has created a pretty formidable looking XV at the club: 15. Telusa Veainu; 14. Jonny May, 13. Jaco Taute, 12. Manu Tuilagi, 11. Jonah Holmes; 10. George Ford, 9. Ben Youngs; 1. Ellis Genge, 2. Tom Youngs, 3. Dan Cole, 4. Tomás Lavanini, 5. Calum Green, 6. Hanro Liebenberg, 7. Guy Thompson, 8. Jordan Taufua.
When everyone is fit and available, Tigers should have a matchday squad that is capable of going toe-to-toe with any side in the Premiership.
That said, how often in a season does a club have everyone available? Between injuries and international call-ups, a club might be lucky to get two or three games at complete strength throughout the course of an entire season.
With mass international call-ups in September and October due to the Rugby World Cup, that problem is only likely to be exacerbated this season, making depth more important than ever at the Premiership clubs.
For Leicester, there is a reason to be buoyed by their emerging depth chart which, by the looks of the second string XV below, seems to be in a much better place than it was last season: 15. EW Viljoen; 14. Jordan Olowofela, 13. Noel Reid, 12. Kyle Eastmond, 11. Sam Aspland-Robinson; 10. Johnny McPhillips, 9. Ben White; 1. Facundo Gigena, 2. Jake Kerr, 3. Joe Heyes, 4. Will Spencer, 5. Harry Wells, 6. David Denton, 7. Tommy Reffell, 8. Sione Kalamafoni
From impressive under-20s such as Heyes and Reffell to standouts from last season such as Kerr and Kalamafoni, there is no doubt that Leicester are in a better place this season to survive injuries, rotate players and prosper during international windows.
Gigena is underrated at loosehead, Reid was only denied more starts by the strength and depth of Leinster and Spencer will be in the mix with Green and Lavanini to start when all three are fit.
This also doesn’t take into account the two under-18 title-winning sides of 2018 and 2019, 16 of whom will be contracted in the club’s senior academy for the upcoming campaign.
Freddie Steward at full-back, Sam Costelow at fly-half and Joe Browning on the wing could all put their hands up for selection in their debut seasons, while forwards such as James Whitcombe, George Martin, and Henri Lavin may have to be more patient, but also offer options if required.
If you drop down to the third-string Tigers XV, they start to feature alongside some of Leicester’s more veteran players: 15. Freddie Steward; 14. Adam Thompstone, 13. Joe Thomas, 12. Tom Hardwick, 11. Joe Browning; 10. Sam Costelow, 9. Sam Harrison; 1. Greg Bateman, 2. Tatafu Polota-Nau, 3. Gaston Cortes, 4. Sam Lewis, 5. George Martin, 6. Cameron Jordan, 7. Jordan Coghlan, 8. Henri Lavin.
?? "One thing we wanted to do was improve on our fitness and energy levels displayed last season, which we have addressed well in these first few weeks"
The boss shares his thoughts on the performance during the opening weeks of the pre-season programme.https://t.co/UQKyOr1rDe
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) July 14, 2019
A settled coaching staff, a strong first XV and improving depth, Tigers have – at least on paper – put themselves into a position to be better in 2019/20 than they were in 2018/19. However, the rest of the league haven’t been sitting by idly, either.
Saracens and Exeter, even impacted by substantial international losses, should retain their spots at the top of the competition. In all honesty, they are not clubs that Leicester are competing with on the table next season.
Moving down a tier and Gloucester, Northampton Saints and Harlequins will all be keen to retain their places in or around the play-off mix. Consolidating that has proven a difficult challenge in recent seasons, so Johan Ackermann, Chris Boyd, and Paul Gustard will all have their work cut out.
Among the sides that Leicester were more competitive with last season, Sale Sharks have strengthened considerably, and Bath have gone hard to bolster their front row, while London Irish have not been afraid to flash the cash following their promotion from the Greene King IPA Championship.
Worcester Warriors and Wasps have seen a large number of comings and goings and may be candidates that don’t look quite as strong on paper as they were before. But that should create opportunities for younger players, any number of whom could stake a claim and not look back just as Ted Hill and Jack Willis have done in recent seasons.
How high, then, can Leicester go this season? The play-offs seem a bridge too far at this point, but could a return to the top tier of Europe be on the cards? The club will, should they want to, be able to rotate players in the Challenge Cup competition, allowing them to stay fresh for their Premiership assault.
? FIXTURES DAY ?
Here is your #GallagherPrem Round One schedule ?? Some tasty match-ups for you ?
How do you rate your team's chances in the opening round??
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) July 10, 2019
If Murphy and his staff can integrate the likes of Taufua and Liebenberg and ensure their transition to English rugby is as seamless as possible, it certainly looks as though Tigers have the quality to significantly improve on their efforts last season.
McPhillips could be a key man in Ford’s absences with England, so he will need to hit the ground running after making the move from Ulster, while youngsters such as Olowofela and Heyes could prove to be significant if they can ‘make the leap’ from impressive age-grade players to fully-rounded out seniors.
There are a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes at this point, but there is a reason for cautious optimism among the Leicester fans.
WATCH: Episode six of The Academy, the six-part RugbyPass documentary series on how Leicester Tigers develop their young players
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