As an ode to the Steve Borthwick era, Leicester Tigers’ 23-16 win over Clermont at Welford Road on Saturday ticked a lot of boxes.
The hosts have kicked the ball 37 times. They have only conceded six penalties. They scored two tries, both from lineouts, and defended with desperation and solidarity.
Clarity, discipline and industriousness were three pillars Borthwick set out to instill upon his arrival in the East Midlands two and a half years ago. Tigers now exude those qualities. To say he left the club in a better place would be an understatement. Borthwick made good on his promise to transform the tanker.
He places great importance on data analytics and, unsurprisingly, interrogating some of the stats behind his spell with Leicester paints a clear picture.
Since the first competitive game of Borthick’s tenure, a 26-13 defeat to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, 75 men have represented Leicester in Premiership and Champions Cup matches. This list details them all:
Many of these players have been new signings and many have left the club. Borthwick has undergone a drastic squad overhaul in a short space of time, which will have required some ruthlessness. The next graph shows the people who started the most in each position:
The first reaction is that it looks like an extremely strong team. It demonstrates that Borthwick has chosen merit regardless of age, rewarding veterans like Dan Cole and youngsters like George Martin, Dan Kelly and Freddie Steward.
Versatility isn’t necessarily reflected in that catalog of starts. Hanro Liebenberg, the current captain, was a key character. His 61 appearances for Leicester were spread across the back row slots. Guy Porter appeared in various backline roles. Regular substitutes such as Charlie Clare, Joe Heyes and Jack van Poortvliet have gained experience as they have been used off the bench.
Clearly, though, Borthwick values toughness. Aled Walters, his former head of conditioning, explained this in an interview with Telegraph Sport earlier this year. Moving on to the Tigers’ style of play, there are more defined models.
The numbers game
When it comes to strategy, every manager has to cut the fabric for the players at his disposal. The million-dollar question is whether Borthwick will operate more expansively with a larger pool to choose from, albeit without overseas stars like Julián Montoya and Jasper Wiese.
In terms of tactical discipline, Leicester are unrivaled in England. That trait, coupled with a local mentality, was the basis of their Premiership victory last season. “Probable over possible” is how Alex Sanderson, another former Saracen and member of Brendan Venter’s coaching dynasty, described the Tigers’ approach. The numbers confirm it.
Since that defeat to Devon in August 2020, when the Premiership bounced back after the lockout, Leicester have averaged 33 kicks per game in domestic league matches. No other Premiership club has more than 30, with Saracens next at 29. Tigers also recorded the fewest carries (90) and passes (109) per game:
Looking at their goalscoring habits, Leicester’s addiction to set pieces is evident. Of their 188 Premiership tries, 113 came from throw-ins. That percentage, 60, is the highest of any club. A 19% share of total tries from mauls also top the charts:
An England side coached by Borthwick will have precise set piece and a teeming defense that pressurizes their opponents as high up the pitch as possible and compete hard for the break.
Football pressure doesn’t have to be boring. France has given its best. They just have the dynamism and ability to worry defenses when in possession. While winning is a priority for Borthwick, it will be fascinating to see how England use the ball.
The theory in practice
Through hard work coupled with a clear game plan and accurate execution, teams can win seemingly insignificant moments and capitalize on the opportunities those small battles present. Saturday offered some great examples.
Leicester were underwhelming for much of the first quarter and slipped 6-0 before Charlie Atkinson got the game back on. Anthony Watson sprints after the ball and Bautista Delguy goes into touch:
That presents Tigers with a lineout and Wiese carves out to score. Watch how the Clermont forwards work to stop the maul:
A feature of the Leicester attack under Borthwick was direct transport from the first stage. Nemani Nadolo swapped wings from lineouts to cut tight corners in midfield.
Over the weekend, the Tigers were obviously poised to target the “seam” of the Clermont lineout defense by feigning to maul before Wiese bowled. In addition to the first half try, they resumed the same play in the second half.
Yohan Beheregaray, the prostitute of Clermont, is the man they are trying to target:
As he does in the clip above, Tommy Reffell steps away from the record to feed Wiese and another near-identical attempt results:
Wiese has a lot of space because Clermont must respect the power of Leicester’s drive. A well-drilled lineout offers so much variety.
Going back to half-time again, the Tigers’ second try came from an up-and-under from Atkinson. Ollie Chessum is the man to watch:
Chases a high kick aiming for Anthony Belleau in backfield. Clermont flanker Alexandre Fischer worried about his opening half and blocks Chessum:
Andrew Brace awards Leicester penalty…
…and a Montoya benefits from the drive:
There have been countless examples of the commitment and skill Kevin Sinfield has cultivated as a defensive coach as well.
James Cronin, Dan Kelly and Wiese forced penalties for failure. Watson dived to take down Delguy. Dan Cole epitomized how the Tigers moved to shut out Clermont, completing a series of cover tackles on faster men.
During his first press conference as England head coach on Monday, Borthwick was still singing about how Kelly and Atkinson rallied to stop Alex Newsome in the final 10 minutes.
Note Kelly’s starting position as Newsome walks up to the first receiver and looks at the two ring forwards across from him in the defensive line:
Atkinson and Kelly team up to stop what would have been a wonderful attempt:
Borthwick used to utter the word “struggle” all the time in interviews, almost as if he was trying to birth that characteristic. Seems to have worked.
What Borthwick leaves in Leicester
In the Zoom session to preview the Clermont game, Borthwick briefly touched on the “legacy” that awaits a young core of players. He checked the names of James Whitcombe, Joe Heyes, George Martin, Ollie Chessum, Lewis Chessum, Tommy Reffell, Jack van Poortvliet, Dan Kelly, Guy Porter, Freddie Steward and Harry Potter. That’s an impressive group that doesn’t mention Phil Cokanasiga, who was recruited by London Irish in the close season, or Atkinson.
Now, one challenge for Leicester is that some of those players have re-signed at the club recently. They will need reassurance about the direction of travel after Borthwick and Sinfield have gone. That said, Saturday’s starting backline past Ben Youngs reeked of potential. Look at him:
10. Charlie Atkinson, 21 years old
11. Harry Potter, 25 years old
12. Dan Kelly, 21 years old
13. Guy Porter, 25 years old
14. Anthony Watson, 28 years old
15. Freddie Steward, 21 years old
Cokanasiga and Van Poortvliet are both 21 years old, while the Tigers have also been linked with 23-year-old forward Ollie Hassell-Collins.
They may take a while to click into attack. George Ford was an immensely influential presence last season. Kelly is returning from injury and Atkinson and Watson are new signings.
Five minutes before half-time on Saturday, the home side earned a penalty lead. Kelly stepped up as first receiver with Clermont looking vulnerable near the far sideline:
Kelly waits for Delguy to throw up and tries to pass a pass to Watson, but sees the ball go into touch:
Potter’s finish in the second period, on the heels of a flurry from Watson and a clean discharge, was canceled out on a forward pass from Steward to Atkinson.
Borthwick and Sinfield leave behind a good set of coaches. The former would be instrumental in attracting Richard Wigglesworth to Leicester. Aled Walters has a great reputation. Tom Harrison is regarded as an excellent scrum coach, while Brett Deacon, Matt Smith and Matt Everard are popular figures with local connections. Everyone will have learned a lot from Borthwick. The club must aim high as they evaluate a replacement figurehead.
“In Steve we trust” quickly became a mantra of Tigers supporters. A hallmark of the tactical discipline Borthwick instilled was clarity that transcended team rotation – away victories against Union Bordeaux Bègles and the Ospreys in the European Cup in the last two seasons are proof of that.
Such is the nature of a busy season that Leicester has no room to rearrange. Their Premiership fixture with Gloucester on Christmas Eve is fifth against fourth and is huge for play-off shock. They later travel to the second-place Sale Sharks. The strength of what Borthwick left behind will be rigorously tested.
Match pictures from BT Sport