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RUGBYPASS+ Forward thinking behind Leicester's transformation

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Forward thinking behind Leicester's transformation
8 months ago

Speak it in a whisper: maybe, just maybe, the good old days of the ABC club are returning at Welford Road. By their own high standards, Leicester has been languishing in the doldrums of late: no major honours achieved since the 2012-2013 English Premiership title, and success in Europe an even more distant echo. It is 20 years since Tigers last won a Heineken Cup, and that is far too long for a club with such an illustrious provenance.

It is no coincidence that success in the professional era has nearly always occurred with an ex-forward as the head coach. Dean Richards won five Premiership titles and two European championships between 1998 and 2004, Richard Cockerill won three more domestic titles between 2009 and 2017.

Since then, it has been a drought under the auspices of three ex-backs: antipodean midfielders Aaron Mauger and Matt O’Connor and more latterly the Ireland full-back Geordan Murphy. It has taken a forward to effect the turnaround, and that man is Eddie Jones’ old right hand with England, Steve Borthwick. He may have been a man of Bath, Leicester’s bitterest rivals as a player, but at least he was a tight forward.

As scrum-half and England cap centurion Ben Youngs commented before the recent Gallagher Premiership match against play-off contenders the Bristol Bears:

“Definitely we have come on a huge amount [under Borthwick], there is no doubt. We have had to strip our game back and start from the fundamentals of our game which is set-piece, scrum, maul, lineout, being direct, kicking game, kicking strategy and all that. We have stripped it right back and I’m sure when we get a full pre-season we will layer on the next bit, layer the next part of our attack and how we put teams under pressure in a different way.

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has helped turn the Tigers’ fortunes around. (Photo by PA)

“So for me, it has definitely been a success and I want to make sure the next two weeks don’t fizzle out. We want to attack the next two weeks and make sure we finish strong and go, ‘Yeah that has been a success. We did this, we did that. We played Bristol, this is where we were against them, we made the top six, we made Europe.’ There are plenty of things still for us to try and do but there is no doubt that definitely we have come on a huge amount under Steve in a short time.”

The Leicester club has gone back to the basics from which it drew its power in its heyday. Tigers were the first English club to utilize the services of a League defence coach (Phil Larder) in the professional era, and now they have unearthed another outstanding coaching personality in the shape of ex-Leeds Rhinos forward and England captain Kevin Sinfield. Under Sinfield, the Leicester defence has only conceded a miserly, league-leading average of 1.6 tries per game over ten matches.

Leicester kick more than anyone else in the league (an average 33 times per game), and the ratio of kicks made to rucks set is the lowest (three kicks to every five rucks). They score most of their tries off one phase (22 out of 32), and the majority of those stem from the lineout drive.

They come on strong in the final quarter, a period where Tigers have scored the most points in the Premiership while giving up the fewest. It is a pressure game designed to split the rock after more than a hundred blows, and the cracks only show up in the last 20 minutes of the contest.

With Montoya in between Ellis Genge and Cole at scrum-time, Tigers are beginning to echo the spirit of the ABC club strongly in the forward battles – shaving the margins, pushing the envelope of the law and the tolerance of their opponents to the absolute limit.

One part of the pressure game which is still evolving is the scrum, which always used to be a Welford Road speciality in the days of first Graham Rowntree, Cockerill and Darren Garforth; and more latterly Marcos Ayerza, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole.

Now there is another Argentine leading the charge from the middle of the set-piece, and he is Pumas hooker Julián Montoya. By many’s reckoning, Montoya was the best rake in the 2021 Rugby Championship: apart from providing consistent quality in his set-piece duties, he won twice as many breakdown turnovers as the next man, made the most tackles of anyone, and finished second only to Australian superman Michael Hooper in number of attendances at the ruck.

With Montoya in between Ellis Genge and Cole at scrum-time, Tigers are beginning to echo the spirit of the ABC club strongly in the forward battles – shaving the margins, pushing the envelope of the law and the tolerance of their opponents to the absolute limit.

It all begins with the set-up before the ball ever comes in. World Rugby’s law-book states that ‘Each hooker’s feet must be in line with, or behind, the foremost foot of that team’s props’.

Leicester tend to set up with Montoya’ right foot well ahead of his props:

In these examples from the recent Premiership game versus Bristol, Montoya’s right foot is well ahead of his props, while those of the Bristol front row are all in a line.

The idea is for the hooker to be able to pull his props through the engagement on the “S” of “Set” and generate some slight, but significant momentum across the centre-line of the scrum at the point of impact. In both the match against Bristol, and the previous game against Connacht in the Heineken Champions Cup, this created some timing problems for the opposing front row:

In the first example, Kyle Sinckler is pinged for the second time in the game for early engagement, so that a short arm free-kick becomes a full penalty. Sinckler has played in Test matches on two successive British & Irish Lions tours, so he is no novice. In the second instance, he has to pull his head out of the engagement as he already begins to feel the squeeze from Ellis Genge and Montoya opposite.

The consequences of Julián Montoya putting his best foot forward can be best illustrated by two more case studies from the Connacht match.

That is another international prop (Ireland’s Finlay Bealham) struggling to get the timing of his engagement right, and the reset scrum shows what happens when the tight-head become too passive, and soaks up the hit. He makes himself an easy target for the opposing hooker and loose-head prop to gain an advantage at “Set”.

The other scrum rule Tigers are successfully bending, if not breaking in time-honoured Welford Road fashion is Law 22: The hooker from the team which threw in the ball must strike for the ball.

Montoya is very smart at juggling the moments when he does not strike for the ball with those when he does. In the following five-metre scrums versus Connacht, the ball never moves from the middle of the tunnel, so any strike by the hooker is nominal – if it occurs at all:

Having a hooker with two feet on the ground throughout the engagement process helps enormously with scrum domination. Bealham was yellow-carded for persistent infringement after the first scrum, and Tigers scored a try from the second sequence which decided the fate of the match.

The absence of a meaningful hook was also a big factor in Leicester’s game versus Bristol. In the following example, which ended in a penalty to Leicester, a cry of ‘no hook!’ was clearly audible from the Bears side of the set-piece:

Eventually, the Tigers’ emphasis on the scrum came back to bite them in the backside:

Julián Montoya makes an early ‘false strike’ for the ball, so that his foot is actually back in a pushing position by the time the ball enters the tunnel. The referee correctly gives a free-kick to the Bears, and all the Leicester forwards are merrily chugging ahead on the drive as Bristol scrum-half Harry Randall takes a quick tap and initiates a try-scoring counter.

Leicester Tigers are doing an awful lot right under the stewardship of ex-Bath second row Steve Borthwick. They currently have the best defence, lineout drive and kicking game in the league, and they finish games better than anyone else too. There is an outstanding spine down the middle of their team: Freddie Steward at fullback, George Ford and Ben Youngs in the halves, Jasper Wiese at number 8 and Julián Montoya at hooker.

Above all, they have remembered the knack of their Welford Road forebears, at gaining an advantage in the substantial murky areas of the law book. Only two seasons before (in 2019-2020), Leicester were the bottom-feeders of the league, so it has already been some transformation. There is more to come.

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