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Why Leicester gambled on winger Murimurivalu playing as a flanker

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

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High-flying Leicester boss Steve Borthwick has hailed the adaptability of his squad – including winger Kini Murimurivalu – in ensuring they continued their unbeaten start to the 2021/22 season into the new year and now head to Wasps next Sunday looking to extend their winning run to 16 games in all competitions. The Tigers kicked off 2022 with a convincing 31-0 demolition last Sunday of Newcastle that wasn’t without its drama and intrigue.

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Borthwick had originally named his team on New Year’s Eve with a five/three forwards/backs split on the bench. However, by the time of the kick-off two days later, that balance on the Leicester bench had become four forwards and four backs as Harry Wells was promoted to start in place of the ill Ollie Chessum and wing Murimurivalu was added to the bench.

Rather than make an appearance as a back, though, the emergency Fijian inclusion was sent into battle on 66 minutes as a No19 jersey-wearing back-rower in place of George Martin and the closing minutes of the match were memorable for Leicester winning a scrum penalty with a back row featuring Murimurivalu and hooker Nic Dolly packing down alongside Wells. 

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While the transition of Dolly from the front row to back row wasn’t massively unusually as he was a forward by trade, the sight of winger Murimurivalu packing down at the Leicester scrum very much piqued the interest and Borthwick was impressed by the attitude that was evident in the victory that kept his team nine points clear of Saracens at the top of the Premiership. 

“We will do all we can in every game to make sure we field a team,” explained Borthwick about the emergency positional rejig. “If that means we have to make adaptations and we play players out of position, as long as the safety issues are fine then that is what we do. We want to play the game, we want the contests and whatever is thrown at us we just have to get on with it.  

“You do always practice with different situations of people in the back row because, with yellow cards etc, those things can happen. Last weekend a player dropped out on matchday through circumstances that could not have been foreseen and I went to Kini and said, ‘This is what I would like you to do’. He jumped at the chance, had a big smile on his face and said, ‘Yes’. I said to the team, ‘This is what we are going to do, let’s get on with it’ and they all smiled and said, ‘Let’s get on with it’. That is a good attitude to have and it is one I want us to continue to have.” 

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Asked why he felt Murimurivalu could do a job as an emergency forward, Borthwick added: “He is a fabulous rugby player, great instinct, runs really well off nine, excellent defender, he knows how good he is around defending the breakdown as well in terms of contesting the ball. But the main thing about Kini is he is a fantastic rugby player so having him in the team, he would adapt.”

Playing out of position was something Borthwick was never asked to do during his own playing career as a second row. “I’m not sure I had the skillset to do much more than be a tight-five forward. Disappointingly for some reason, no one ever asked me to play fly-half or anything like that. I would like to have had pace but I knew where I was as a player.”

Borthwick added that he can’t promise that Leicester will have a more familiar bench split this Sunday at Wasps than last weekend’s four/four divvy-up. “Right now I can answer that question and say yes but who knows come matchday. It’s something we will talk to the players about and we will scenario plan that in training where I will throw something at them that they didn’t expect and see how the players adapt to it. I’ll say yes, but who knows come the morning of the game.”

Leicester’s progress under Borthwick this season has received much praise and a win at Wasps will see them match the club’s all-time best run of 16 wins set at the start of the 1983/84 season. It will also match Newcastle’s Premiership record that saw them win their first twelve league games of the 1997/98 campaign.

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The coach, though, refused to buy into the conversations about records following a run that has so far featured eleven wins in the Premiership, two in the Champions Cup and two more in the Premiership Cup.  

You have to respect victory because this is a team that didn’t win a lot of games for a long so when you see the joy when they win a game you respect it, enjoy it, sit together in the changing room, talk about it, see the supporters and the joy it brings to them and then we get to start of the next week and it’s, ‘Let’s get on with the next game’. I would be very surprised if the players didn’t say that was what we had always done and always will do.   

“If I keep thinking about the games that have gone before then we will put in a poor performance. All you can focus on is putting in a performance that you can right now (against Wasps). That is all I can control. I can’t control Europe, I can’t control what any other team in the Premiership does, I can’t control what my opponents do. 

“All I can do is try and coach the team as well as I can and thankfully I have got a group of players who are really determined to work hard and do well, a really ambitious group of young men who have a lot of growth in them, so I am enjoying working with them and hopefully we can grow together.”

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