Analysis: Counting down the Leicester Tigers comeback
The opening evening of the Premiership season saw Leicester Tigers deliver a stunning comeback victory owing to persistence, composure and a bit of luck
Every so often, usually in dry conditions on a hard pitch, a chaotic encounter causes witnesses to scratch their heads. On Friday night at Kingsholm, where Leicester Tigers secured an astonishing comeback win over Gloucester, the Premiership campaign began with such a tie.
Man of the match Sam Harrison summed up the bedlam in his post-game interview, admitting that he could not highlight a single turning point because “so much had happened” during a bizarre 80 minutes. Leicester’s 38-31 success, snatched from 31-7 down with many of the points scored in the final seconds, certainly beggared belief.
Historically, Tigers teams have earned a reputation being obdurate and bloody-minded, eking out results against the odds – sometimes despite stuttering performances. Conversely, Gloucester have capitulated calamitously in recent seasons.
But besides reinforcing club stereotypes, the climax to Friday’s thriller underlined the importance of these facets:
- A strong bench capable of raising intensity and maintaining structure
- Clear-thinking and technical application in high-stakes situations
- Making decisions with conviction and playing to the team’s strengths
- Awareness of laws, even newly-introduced ones
- Appreciation of space
We begin our countdown with Gloucester on the attack, seven points ahead.
Seven and a half minutes to go: Riding luck
Wales back-rower Ross Moriarty stationed himself in wide channels for most of the match and carried wonderfully, setting up a try for Matt Scott with a superb first-half offload.
Here, with the clock ticking down, he is primed for another explosive run as Gloucester’s replacement scrum-half Willi Heinz finds Billy Twelvetrees:
However, the latter opts to take the ball into contact, stepping off his left foot. Tigers front-row replacements Ellis Genge and George McGuigan combine to make the tackle as Will Evans, another member of Leicester’s young calvary sweeps around:
But Evans does not have a chance to contest on the floor. McGuigan swings around Twelvetrees and hurls himself back towards the ball as Moriarty and wing Henry Purdy resource the ruck for Gloucester:
Rather than staying on his feet and marching through the breakdown, McGuigan falls into it. Referees are under specific instructions to penalise players that impede opposition scrum-halfs this season, so when Heinz is obstructed…
…Wayne Barnes is quick to signal that the hosts have an advantage:
After the attack fizzles out, Barnes returns to the mark with a clear explanation:
Gloucester seem to suffer from muddled thinking, though. Seven in front with four tries scored, the opportunity to forge a 10-point buffer is there.
Even so, an immediate discussion between Greig Laidlaw and James Hook suggests the decision is not straightforward. Sure enough, following two prompts from Barnes…
…skipper Laidlaw explains Gloucester will kick for touch rather than three points:
Around 45 metres from the posts, Hook takes the ball, punts into the stand…
…and Gloucester are presented with a lineout on the Tigers 22.
Now, Graham Kitchener had joined the fray in place of young lock Dominic Barrow by this point. His athleticism and nous provided Tigers with a big boost at the set-piece.
Here, behind Genge and the excellent Lachlan McCaffrey in a lifting pod of three, Kitchener fixes his eyes on the front of Gloucester’s lineout. Either because of pre-match analysis or a gut feeling, he is clearly anticipating a short throw from hooker Darren Dawidiuk:
Sure enough, Jacob Rowan and Gareth Evans step back to allow Argentina international Mariano Galarza – a regular target – through from the back of the lineout:
McCaffrey jumps, lifted by the fully-extended arms of Genge with Kitchener supporting from behind, and flicks the ball on to the Leicester side with his left hand:
Following strong midfield carries from industrious backs Adam Thompstone and Matt Smith – two more replacements – Ben Youngs, another to come off the bench, can find Harrison…
…who boots towards the 10-metre line to safety:
Having just lost a crucial lineout, Gloucester are immediately put under more set-piece pressure.
Five and a half minutes to go: Maul wrecking mission
This time, Moriarty is hauled into the air. Rowan and Gareth Evans look to establish a driving maul as their colleague takes Dawidiuk’s throw unopposed because Tigers have opted not to lift anyone.
Instead, they place faith in their maul defence. Watch Dan Cole, Will Evans and Ed Slater:
Evans and Slater drive from the right as Moriarty lands…
…while Cole and Kitchener hit from the left, splintering that side of Gloucester’s maul set-up by taking out lifter Galarza.
Justifiably, Moriarty looks dubious as to the legality of these tactics:
Barnes sees no offence, though. Cole and Kitchener spin through the maul while Slater has battled through to take hold of ball-carrier Rowan:
When everything collapses, Barnes awards the scrum to Tigers:
Moriarty’s gesture towards the touch judge says it all. He thinks Cole and Kitchener and come around the side…
…but the turnover stands and Leicester have a scrum.
Four and a half minutes to go: Striking from deep
Still approximately 60 metres from the Gloucester try-line, this Leicester scrum is hardly an dangerous attacking platform. Indeed, the Tigers backs line up close to their own 22:
However, when the front-rows engage…
…there is some instability. And as the scrum wobbles, Ben Youngs keeps his eyes firmly on Barnes, edging towards the back foot:
This anticipation means that when Barnes raises his whistle to blow for a Leicester free-kick…
…McCaffrey has the ball in his hands under two seconds later, just as both back-rows peel off:
Ever alert, McCaffrey taps…
…and can charge away. Note that he runs slightly infield, heading towards a potential breakdown 20 metres in from the touchline.
As New Zealand showed throughout the recent Bledisloe Cup series, this is a prime position from which to exploit the blindside. With Heinz sweeping in behind, Gloucester have nobody in that 15-metre channel:
This problem is exacerbated as McCaffrey’s run ties in the entire Gloucester back-row (in these next three screenshots, the numbers represent the players’ positions at the preceding scrum).
As Tigers flankers Brendon O’Connor and Will Evans arrive in support, Cherry and White locks Tom Savage and Galarza fold around the corner and on to the openside:
Moments later, the Gloucester front-row also gravitates to the ruck. Moriarty tries his luck with a counter-ruck, while Laidlaw – now at fly-half – calls more forwards across.
Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs arrives to find the opposition forwards bunched together extremely tightly:
As he darts to the left, seven members of the Gloucester pack are within five metres of the ruck:
Galarza is not too far away either, so while you could throw a blanket over the home team’s forwards – to use a gruesome cliche – Leicester’s tight five have spread out to offer options on both sides of the breakdown.
Emerging from the loosehead side of scrum to provide width, Genge can latch on to Ben Youngs’ pass and past Gloucester’s outside edge. The reaction of the opposition’s decision-making backs is telling.
Heinz circles back towards the blindside, Tom Marshall hurtles up from the back-field to plug the space:
As Genge trucks forward, Heinz and Marshall must combine to make the tackle:
They are therefore caught close to the subsequent ruck. O’Connor has followed up to station himself at first-receiver for the next phase, but Springbok signing JP Pietersen has other ideas.
The wing communicates to Ben Youngs that there is space in behind the Gloucester line because Heinz and Pietersen’s opposie wing Marshall, two players that would normally be patrolling the back-field, are otherwise engaged:
Pietersen times his chase perfectly as Ben Youngs chips over. Meanwhile, O’Connor puts his head down and sprints through in pursuit:
Sailing over the head of Heinz and out of reach of covering Hook, Ben Youngs’ kick hits the hard Kingsholm turf:
Pietersen aims a subtle nudge into Heinz’s back…
…and calmly secures possession:
Demonstrating all 69 Tests of experience, Pietersen instinctively spins back on himself and towards his onrushing support, sucking in Hook:
A simple pass to O’Connor brings the try…
…and Harrison’s ice-cool conversion brings Leicester level.
Two and a half minutes to go: Accurate exit
Field position is paramount for Gloucester, if only to ward off any nerves. A long restart down to Will Evans is the right call.
…before stepping off his left foot…
…transferring the ball into his right hand and fending off a chasing Twelvetrees with his left:
Purdy and Paddy McAllister must step in to make the tackle:
And, with Ben Youngs directing them, Cole and Kitchener robustly resource the breakdown. Slater lends his weight too…
…but, before kicking, Ben Youngs wants one more man in the ruck to shield him from a potential charge-down with Twelvetrees and McAllister lurking:
Thinking clearly amid the harum-scarum finale, the scrum-half calls O’Connor across and into position…
…before striking a fine clearance:
After signing from London Irish in 2012, Thompstone has flourished at Tigers. He is never shy of unglamorous graft, and this is another example of such hard work.
The wing chases Ben Youngs’ kick well beyond the touch-judge’s flag, stopping Gloucester from taking a quick lineout:
Not only does this mean that Marshall is prevented from launching a counter, it also means that the hosts’ faltering set-piece is thrust under the microscope once more.
Two minutes to go: Three turnovers
Again, McCaffrey and Kitchener focus on the front of Gloucester’s lineout as Dawidiuk prepares to throw:
And again, Gareth Evans steps out to allow Galarza to come forward:
This time, it is Rowan rather than McAllister who assumes the role of lifter, but Leicester mirror their opponents. McCaffrey hurls Kitchener skywards…
…and although the lifting pod just misses another steal, the ball also evades Galarza so Slater can snaffle it at the tail:
With Gloucester disorganised, Ben Youngs senses an opportunity to seize better field position and force them into another lineout.
As he shapes to kick from the very next breakdown, both Laidlaw and Heinz begin to scramble back. Galarza has other ideas, though. The Puma stays onside…
…and wins the ball back for Gloucester by gathering spectacularly after a charge-down:
Regrouping, Gloucester move the ball right. Heinz finds Laidlaw…
…and a miss-pass to Scotland centre Scott hands the hosts a three-on-two situation:
Again, Pietersen’s know-how comes to the fore. He rushes up on the outside to cut off the path to Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples, so although Scott is carrying the ball in two hands, he is persuaded against throwing a Hollywood pass that could result in a game-breaking interception. Instead Scott steps inside…
…where he is met by an exceptional tackle from Smith, another of Leicester’s underrated club men:
Smith drives Scott backwards, meaning Laidlaw must change path in an attempt to recycle the ball:
As Scott hits the deck, Peter Betham fires in. Having also had to double back on himself, Rowan is in a weak position to aid Laidlaw:
Smith shows great awareness to recover his feet and march into a counter-ruck alongside Betham, leaving the ball well alone as Scott tries to place it backwards:
Roared on by Kitchener, Smith and Betham make headway. Ben Youngs now looks to pilfer the ball…
…with O’Connor seizing his moment too as Paul Doran Jones tries to shunt Leicester’s centres off the ball:
Smith is eventually driven away from the ball, but this only isolates Scott even further. With Ben Youngs over the top of him, Scott pulls the ball back towards himself in full view of the referee…
…who awards the penalty to Leicester:
While Barnes is explaining his decision, Ben Youngs rushes after the ball. Kitchener moves towards hooker McGuigan and senior statesman Slater, who are immediately weighing up the situation with kicker Harrison:
There is a clearly some indecision, but after initially suggesting he is keen to take a shot at goal, Harrison – with Slater in his eye-line – indicates to Barnes that he will be aiming for touch:
This may have been a comic moment, but Gloucester hearts would have sunk on watching Harrison’s subsequent kick:
The superb strike brings Leicester within striking distance of the try-line:
And, for all of the slick phase-patterns introduced by Aaron Mauger, it felt fitting that victory was sealed with a traditional Tigers weapon.
Thirty seconds to go: Comeback complete
From this range, Leicester were obviously going to put their faith in a driving maul. As has become customary, they set up with a flanker – O’Connor in this case – standing in the scrum-half position.
But Tigers cannot initiate a drive in the same manner as they would have done last season. Because of new laws introduced this season, it is important to track Will Evans here:
The World Rugby amendment is outlined below:
Essentially, the ball must transfer to the back of a maul by passing between players, as opposed to a carrier being pushed to the back while still holding the ball. This all means that Will Evans has a vital role.
Sure enough, as McGuigan’s throw is taken by Kitchener and O’Connor moves forward to latch on, Will Evans sprints back around:
O’Connor burrows into the traditional wedge shape to take the ball…
…but straightaway transfers it back to Will Evans:
From here, the maul gathers momentum. Ben Youngs approaches to direct proceedings and the drive comes in-field away from the touchline, both to reduce the chances of Gloucester forcing it into touch and also to provide a blindside (indicated by the yellow dash) to attack:
Of course, the new transfer law also applies to players re-joining a maul, so when Genge is spat out of the side and arcs back around towards Will Evans – still holding the ball– he must adhere to the same procedure:
Right in front of Barnes, Genge shows discipline and awareness, joining the tail and taking the ball:
At this point, five metres out, Ben Youngs calls for the backs to join the drive. Betham is first there…
…with Smith and Harrison arriving shortly afterwards:
None of them join in front of the ball, and Harrison even takes the ball from Genge…
…before dotting down to spark the celebrations:
This was the first time in Leicester’s 136-year history that they have overturned a 24-point deficit to win a game. An undulating 80 minutes changed course and defied logic throughout.
But at the business end, Tigers were precise. They had a sniff of victory and pounced. More so than a maximum haul of five league points – and Kingsholm will see plenty of home wins this season – such ruthlessness will please Richard Cockerill hugely.