When Leicester Tigers lifted the English Premiership trophy last summer, it felt like the perfect reward for a club who had been underperforming and dicing with relegation, but who had been through a recent programme of revival and had come out the other end.
However, whilst the players and coaching staff deserve enormous credit for what happened on the field, there are other areas of the club that have not perhaps been given the recognition that their efforts have merited.
In this tactical analysis, the light will be shone on those involved in player recruitment, both from outside the club and from the academy, with it undeniable that the calibre of players that have been brought in playing a key role in helping to transform the team’s performances on the field.
The analysis will take a closer look at several aspects of their recruitment, including why getting the balance of ages right has been key to their success, as well as why the high level of versatility in the squad has given them more flexibility when it comes to their tactics.
The right age and tactical profile
When looking at Leicester Tigers’ squad as a whole, the first thing that comes to mind is how they have a mix of ages in almost every position, with up-and-coming players who are starting to make their names mixed with those who have experienced a lot in English rugby and who are realistically coming to the end of their careers, and having that range of experiences is always important in helping a team to achieve on the field.
When Leicester are looking for new additions, the key thing that they look for is players who are either at or about to reach their peak, with many of their new signings being in their mid 20s and at the point in their careers where they have some experience but also time to develop further.
In fact, only a few days ago, they announced four new players who had signed for next season, with former Worcester Warriors trio Jamie Shillcock, Kyle Hatherell and Finn Theobald-Thomas and ex-Wasps and current Harlequins back Josh Bassett all making the move to Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
Whilst Theobald-Thomas is 19, so is one for the future, and Bassett is 30 so comes in to add experience at the other end of the scale, Shillcock and Hatherell are 25 and 27 respectively. Add in two of their other new additions, Bristol Bears scrum-half Tom Whiteley, 27, and another former Wasps player in loosehead Tom West, 26 (and who has joined until the end of the current season), and it becomes clearer how Leicester always have this specific age profile in mind when dipping into the market.
However, it is not only about the age of the player, because any new name who makes a move to the East Midlands side needs to match their tactical aims too. With the Tigers being a side who, in recent years, have focused on winning rolling mauls, creating opportunities from the central areas and defending on the front foot, it is important that they have a front row who are capable of driving forward and dominating opposing packs, a fly-half with a good vision and ability to find targets around the field and players among the forwards and the backs who can press whenever the team loses the ball.
Again, getting the right players in is vital for these tactics to have the desired effect, and Argentina hooker Julian Montoya is a prime example of a player who has given them what they needed. Time and time again, he has been seen charging over the line from attacking lineouts and making his name as a difficult player to stop when the Tigers start to drive forwards.
It is not just about having players who can make an immediate impact though, but also about bringing in backups for those first-choice players, ready to step in once they are called away for international duties. This is why continued development of the squad is essential, and the fact that Leicester have added players like West for the rest of this season shows that they are always looking for extra cover and ensuring that they are never left short of options.
However, as mentioned at the beginning of the scout report, bringing players in from the outside is only half the story with the Tigers, because the way that they have used their academy is also very impressive.
When listing some of the players to have come out of their junior ranks in recent seasons, such as Joe Heyes, Ollie Chessum, George Martin, Tommy Reffell, Jack van Poortvliet and Freddie Steward, this becomes even more impressive, with all of those names going on to become international players who have given the team a future generation of talent, as well as balancing out the range of ages in the squad.
The other thing that Leicester Tigers have done well when it comes to new additions is increasing versatility, with many of their squad capable of playing in two or three different positions.
Once again, the recruitment team have specific profiles for different positions, and finding players who fit the coaching staff’s requirements is something that Leicester have, on the whole, done well. Again, Montoya is a prime example of their ability to sign players who go on to star in a Leicester shirt, as is fellow hooker Nic Dolly, who made a huge impact after joining the team back in 2021.
However, being a front rower is a specialist position, so, whilst they have been exceptional for the Tigers, they don’t fit the bill when it comes to versatility. Looking further back though, it is not hard to come across names who can operate in different areas, with England’s Anthony Watson capable of playing at full-back or on the wing, as is Fiji international Kini Murimurivalu, whilst captain Hanro Liebenberg can operate anywhere across the back row and the experienced Jimmy Gopperth has played as a fly-half and a centre in his time.
Having this ability to mix things up and have players operating in different areas opens up different tactical options during games, and one example of that is the use of Harry Simmons over the last two weekends. Against Clermont and Ospreys, Simmons, normally a scrum-half, was used as a winger, with interim head coach Richard Wigglesworth looking to use his speed and range of passing to give the two opposing teams different problems in defence.
One of those is Simmons’ ability to evade tackle attempts in tight spaces, and the fact that he scored a try against Clermont by weaving between opponents showed that it was a good decision to move him into the wide channel. Therefore, having the option to move players around in this way has been a key part of the Tigers’ recent successes.
Rotation is also important, particularly at this stage of the season, when every game has something riding on it, whether it be points or tournament progression, and the fact that any injury at this point of the campaign could be season-ending is also something that needs to be factored in.
For Leicester, with their squad versatility, this has not usually been a problem, with them having either a couple of backup options to choose from or a player somewhere else in the side who can fill in for a run of matches, and there never seems to be any major panic at the club when they do have injury problems.
Again, the recruitment team are the ones who deserve the credit for that, because they are the ones going out and identifying players from outside or from the academy who can replace anyone forced to spend time on the sidelines, as well as generally helping the team to keep developing and improving.
In conclusion, every team has their own way of adding new talent, and some signings hit the mark whilst others don’t quite live up to expectations. However, Leicester Tigers rarely seem to make a bad signing these days (some might argue that Handre Pollard has not been the player fans hoped he would be, but it is realistically still too early into his Tigers career to make any solid judgements just yet), and those involved in recruiting their players need to take a lot of praise for their part in the team’s transformation from relegation contenders to title challengers.
They will host fierce rivals Northampton Saints this weekend, knowing that, on the field, things have not been as good this season. However, off the field, the names that they have been attracting have been really impressive, with World Cup winner Pollard one of those that, a few years ago, they may not have been able to tempt to Welford Road.
If that good work is maintained and the team is continually developed and added to with players at the right age and with the right qualities, then results will follow and another Premiership trophy may not be too far away.