Inside the Tigers’ Den - Champagne rugby and signing bonanza

Leicester Tigers warm up before their game with London Irish. Photos: John Evely EMN-160103-103503001
Leicester Tigers warm up before their game with London Irish. Photos: John Evely EMN-160103-103503001
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Tigers were not just looking to win on Sunday, they were looking to make a statement, to put a big score on the visitors London Irish and get some swagger back into their walk after three losses on the bounce.

Their worst run of results in the Aviva Premiership since 2004.

They did, winning 47-20, scoring seven tries in a game which would have looked more at home in Super Rugby, which incidentally kicked off at the weekend.

Whether it was a great performance that’s a different question because better teams will not allow Tigers to madly throw the ball around like they were doing. It’s strange to say of a Leicester team, but they look short of fire power up-front.

Tigers’ ambition was clear to see from the off, there was no kicking for the sticks on Sunday, going for the corner in just the second minute.

There were plenty of outstanding performances amongst the men in green and white stripes and double try scorer Adam Thompstone was in the mix for man of the match against his old team.

Hooker Harry Thacker is fast becoming a fan favourite and scored another brilliant try, inspired by the attacking instincts of Freddie Burns, who displayed the perfect mix of attacking prowess and structured game management. Thacker had to pick the ball off his shoelaces at full tilt and then step the last defender to get his name on the scoresheet.

Lachlan McCaffrey and Tom Croft crossed for Leicester and a pair of players marking debuts of different kinds joined them.

Young scrum half Jono Kitto scored on his first start for the club and was very close to making it two, only an agonisingly tortured decision between the referee and video referee ruled off his score after Thompstone was adjudged to have thrown a forward pass.

South African legend Jean de Villiers also crossed on his home debut to mark a highly improved performance from his first outing for the club a week earlier.

At his more accustomed inside centre position he and Manu Tuilagi, at 13, made inroads into London Irish. A lot of Tuilagi’s carries were into heavy traffic but as the game went on the spaces began to open up and he made more and more yards.

And then of course there was that hit. The thunderous, crunching, and legal, smashing of London Irish and Scotland flanker Blair Cowan that saw the ball fly into the air like something out of a carton and the stadium erupted with a chorus of “Manu, Manu, Manu.” But it also revealed an ever-increasing sharpness in Tuilagi - the tackle came about when Irish tried to take a quick line out, and a poor looping pass exposed Cowan’s ribs. Tuilagi was the only Tiger to realise what was happening and raced in from 30 yards to shut down the danger.

l The big centre’s performance was obviously good enough to please new England head coach Eddie Jones, who called Tuilagi back too Pennyhill to train with the national squad on Monday and Tuesday.

But he was released to return to his club and is expected to play against Exeter Chiefs in a huge Aviva Premiership tie at Welford Road on Sunday.

The question is will he play against Wales a week later in what could be the key game of this year’s Six Nations?

Cockerill hopes not - because at the same time his side have one of the toughest games of their season against very noisy neighbours Wasps.

As Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill put it there is “a circus around chief” - also known as Manu. And the circus was in town in the depths of the Crumbie Stand in the press room on Sunday as the national press clamoured around keen to hear the no nonsense coach’s view on his charge. For once Cockerill repelled the questions with evasive answers, almost as evasive as Tulusa Veainu, replying with jokes that England are a winning side, and they should not mess around with a winning side.

When pushed he admitted it’s a fight he can not win so why bother. If they want him they get him.

Reflecting on the victory Cockerill said: “It was a good win, happy to get it and get back on track.”

“It was against a side that are struggling a bit, but we’ll take the five points and no injuries. Everyone got a good run out and we’ve got three big weeks ahead.”

After three successive losses to Sale Sharks, Newcastle Falcons and Harlequins, the victory over the Exiles moved the Tigers back into fourth thanks to Harlequins feeling the wrath of Wasps.

The good news is Owen Williams will be fit to take on second place Exeter on Sunday but hooker Tom Youngs looks set to miss the game with his back spasms which seem to be worse than originally thought.

l On Monday the club unveiled a clearer picture of their future by announcing three new signings and extending the deals for three of their most promising young players.

The new signings did not quite have the sparkle of those which have come before, Australia international Matt Toomua and South African World Cup winner JP Pietersen, along with new deals for Tuilagi, Burns, Thompstone and Ben Youngs. But do not underestimate these selectors, few were excited about the summer signings. No one saw the potential in Lachlan McCaffrey and he is a competitor for player of the season so far.

Incidently Youngs started alongside Dan Cole for England in their victory over Ireland to keep their spot at the top of the Six Nations’ table.

Meanwhile Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini crossed for the Azzurri in their defeat against Scotland.

l On Monday Leicester confirmed the signing of South Africa international prop Pat Cilliers for the start of the 2016/17 season.

Capped six times since August 2012 - including two wins against England - Cilliers made his provincial debut in South Africa with the Sharks in 2007, moving to the Lions in 2010 and then the Stormers before joining Montpellier in France in 2014. He also played against the British & Irish Lions as part of the Emerging Springboks squad in 2009. He is currently playing his rugby with Top 14 side Montpellier.

Cockerill said: “Pat is a strong guy in the traditions of South African rugby and will bring with him a lot of experience of playing both in South Africa and in Europe.

“At 29, he is coming into his prime as a prop and we look forward to seeing him getting down to work here in preparation for next season alongside guys like Marcos Ayerza, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Logovi’i Mulipola and Fraser Balmain.”

Cilliers, who will move to Tigers at the end of his contract in France this summer, said: “I am really looking forward to playing at Leicester for the next few years of my career.

“Leicester have assembled an exciting squad full of quality players all over the park and I hope I can contribute towards achieving both domestic and European silverware with them in the future.”

l Joining him in the front row next season will be Newcastle Falcons hooker George McGuigan.

The 22 year-old, joined the Falcons’ Academy as a teenager and signed his first full-time contract with the club at the age of 18 after graduating from the Gosforth Academy AASE Scheme.

Since signing that first contract, he has made 59 first team appearances for the club to date.

l Leicester have also agreed a move for Sale Sharks wing Tom Brady for next season.

The 25-year-old Brady has made more than 100 appearances in six seasons with the Sharks since making a try-scoring debut against Newcastle Falcons in September 2010.

Cockerill said: “Tom has a lot of ability in the wide channels and has a decent try-scoring record. We think he can kick on again at Leicester and look forward to welcoming him during the summer.”

Brady said: “The opportunity to play for one of the biggest clubs in Europe doesn’t come along every day and I’m massively excited at the prospect of joining Leicester Tigers next season. The quality of squad they are assembling and the drive for trophies is something I’m looking forward to being part of.”

Going in the opposite direction will be dual-code player Laurence Pearce, who has made a decent impact at Tigers sign joining from Rotherham Titans in 2014. He switched codes in 2012, joining The Championship club from Super League side Hull FC.

Pearce has so far made 26 appearances for the club, largely at number eight which is perhaps the least settled and established position in the Tigers team. McCaffrey has been first choice for much of the season, ahead of Jordan Crane, Opeti Fonua and the versatile Christian Loamanu. However on Sunday Ed Slater packed down at the back of the scrum.

l Leicester Tigers have also agreed new contract terms with Jono Kitto, George Catchpole and Jack Roberts beyond the end of the current season.

New Zealand-born Kitto moved to Welford Road earlier this season and, made his debut against Wasps in November.

Cockerill said: “Jono is a young man who came here to challenge himself and he’s settled in well. He is working hard on his game with Scott Hansen, Aaron Mauger and the rest of the coaching team.

“We have a good group of players at scrum-half and Jono will only get better as he develops alongside Ben Youngs, Sam Harrison and George Tresidder.”

Kitto, 23, said: “I’ve enjoyed my time at the club this season and I was very keen to stay. It is a great club and it’s a privilege to play here and a great environment to work in.”

Catchpole, 22, joined the Tigers academy from school in Norfolk and won England age-group honours before making his senior debut in November 2013. He played a prominent part in the club’s run to the LV= Cup semi-finals last season as well as gaining experience in the Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup.

Cockerill said: “George is a good young player who has grown up within the Tigers environment. He established himself in the senior squad last season and with top-quality senior players around him, and Aaron Mauger and Geordan Murphy among the coaching team, we think he can continue to grow his game here.”

Roberts, 24, joined Tigers from Championship side Rotherham at the start of 2014/15 and played in the historic fixture against the Barbarians as well as in the LV= Cup run in his first season.

Born in North Wales, Roberts played in the Welsh Premiership with Llandovery before reaching the Championship play-offs with Rotherham.

Cockerill said: “Jack has worked very hard since coming into the squad and he wants to challenge himself to be the best player he can be here. We have a very competitive backline and he has good people to learn from and develop with here.”

Roberts said: “I’ve really enjoyed my time at the club and now I’m looking forward to staying and being able to take my opportunities when they come.”