Calamity has struck. Just when it looked as if things were getting better for Leicester Tigers they have been hit with a huge body blow – losing up and coming fly-half Owen Williams to a serious knee injury.
Williams limped off the field during Leicester’s 43-9 demolition of Cardiff Blues in the final round of the LV= Cup.
At the time the full extent of his injury was unknown but it turns out he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and has had knee reconstruction surgery this week.
The 22 year-old has been ruled out for nine months, which means any faint hopes he had of making the Wales squad for the Rugby World Cup have also been ended.
Since moving to Tigers from the Scarlets, Williams has jumped to the top of the pecking order despite the presence of more established and internationally capped fly-halves at the club.
In his first season he finished first choice ahead of Toby Flood, although that was due in part to the 60-cap England international having one foot out the door after announcing he would join Toulouse.
When Leicester announced the signing of Freddie Burns, a five times England international himself, from Gloucester there was speculation that he would take the number 10 jersey, but for the big games, when both men have been fit, Williams has got the nod.
With a cannon-like kick and calm and controlling manner, he has developed into a top Aviva Premiership fly-half and it came as little surprise when Tigers extended his contract for another two years recently, fighting off stiff competition from the Welsh regions, who were reportedly interested in luring him back, perhaps on a dual pay deal with the Welsh Rugby Union.
Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “It’s obviously massively disappointing news for Owen and for the Tigers because he has been outstanding for us in his two seasons here.
“He is a young man with a big future in the game and we look forward to his return when he is fully recovered.
“He is in good hands with our medical team and he will start his rehab shortly.
“We have options at fly-half with Freddie Burns, Seremaia Bai, Tommy Bell and David Mele all experienced in that position and they are all good players who know our systems. Young Oli Bryant has also made his senior debut for us this season.”
As luck would have it, Freddie Burns looks to be returning to top form, if the man of the match performance he put in to beat his old side Gloucester on Friday night was anything to go by.
Burns won a kicking duel in the horrible rain against former Wales fly-half James Hook, finishing with a 100 per cent record on the night, albeit with two kicks scraping the uprights on their way through, in the 18-15 victory.
Burns could well have got caught up in the emotion of playing against his old club and facing his little brother Billy but instead he put on a confident and assured performance.
For the last month, 24 year-old Burns have been working with former England fly-half Paul Grayson to improve his kicking to overhaul Williams as first choice at the top four chasing club.
Cockerill said: “Freddie came to see me a few weeks ago about selection and I said that while he was kicking at 60 per cent, and Owen was kicking at 80 per cent, Owen would play, because that’s the difference in games and we saw that tonight. If he had kicked at 60 per cent we would have lost. He brought in Paul Grayson to work with him. I encouraged it but sometimes players have to work it out for themselves.
“Freddie is a bright lad and he works hard. We saw the benefit of that tonight. If Owen has been fit, Freddie wouldn’t have started, but he has taken his chance.
“He’s a Test player but he has to be consistent and do it next week and the week after, and that will get him to where he wants to be. I’m delighted for him.
“Even that last kick to win the game, in poor conditions underfoot, he just got on with it and kicked his goal.”
The win on Friday moved Leicester into fourth spot but by the end of the weekend they were down to seventh with Wasps, Exeter and Sale all winning. With eight league games left to play in the regular season, just two points separate fourth place Wasps and seventh place Leicester. Even third place Saracens are just two points further ahead, meaning they could be pulled into the scrap for a top four finish.
Exeter and Wasps particularly are clubs on the up and looking to shake up the status quo. Tigers will look to get a jump on some of their rivals when they travel to the Madejski Stadium on Sunday to take on London Irish, who were the last team to beat them at Welford Road.
Once again Leicester’s contingent of England internationals played a key role in the national side’s success in the second round of the RBS Six Nations on Saturday.
After a slow start, when the Italians – who included Tigers hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini – shocked England by going ahead through inspirational captain Sergio Parisse, England went through the gears to run out 47-17 victors and go top of the table.
Ben Youngs started at scrum half and while he wasn’t as sharp as in the opening victory over Wales he still excelled and showed the type of form he is in when he took a quick tap penalty to score.
Dan Cole again impressed in the scrum but the expansive nature of the match did not really suit his game in the loose. However he delivered admirably.
Tom Youngs brought some added dynamism to the side when he came off the replacements bench and improved the line out accuracy.
Tom Croft also made his international return off the bench.
Away from the Six Nations, a former England international and brilliant servant to Leicester Tigers has hung up his sizeable boots.
Second row Louis Deacon has been forced to retire from rugby at 34 because of injury.