Steve Borthwick shouts instructions before his first game as Leicester Tigers head coach last season
Credit: Getty Images Europe
It has only been 47 days since Leicester Tigers last played in the Premiership. But, true to recent form, they have managed to pack plenty of drama into a truncated pre-season.
More accurately, the off-field commotion has been crammed into a month – coming thick, fast and right on the cusp of a new campaign.
It was on October 16 that the departure of scrum coach Boris Stankovich was confirmed, with attack coach Rob Taylor following him out of the door on November 3. Two days after that, a coronavirus outbreak caused the Oval Park training ground to be closed.
Then, just last week, executive director Rory Underwood stepped down from the club’s board before the exit of Geordan Murphy, director of rugby since July 1, was announced.
Geordan Murphy on the touchline last season
While it may have been the continuation of an essential clean-out that remained unfinished after two grim seasons, the sequence has compounded the frustration and confusion felt by a fan base that was already weary.
Head coach Steve Borthwick, who demands intense commitment from his backroom team like mentor Eddie Jones, deals in clarity.
He has insisted that both Stankovich and Taylor decided to leave Tigers. The former, it should be said, oversaw the single strand of Leicester’s performances that had been consistent over recent years.
According to Opta, Tigers have had 537 scrum put-ins since the start of the 2017-18 Premiership season. They have won 162 penalties from those set pieces and conceded 79.
That gives them a differential of 83, the best in the league by some distance with only Exeter Chiefs, on 71, anywhere close.
Penalties won and conceded in the Premiership since 2017-18
Now, there are many different metrics when it comes to evaluating scrummaging success. Sides like Northampton Saints value a sturdy platform above anything else. But those figures regarding put-ins and penalties suggest that Stankovich, renowned for the detail of his knowledge, was doing something right.
Taylor returned to New Zealand for personal reasons. His influence over the preceding four months must have been at least partly marginalised by an explicit decision to prioritise fitness, defence and kicking strategies over post-lockdown matches.
As part of a feature for the club’s YouTube channel last Friday, Borthwick explained that Leicester were keeping half an eye on possible replacements for Stankovich and Taylor.
In the meantime, having impressed while flitting between first-team and academy duties since Borthwick’s arrival, Tom Harrison and Matt Smith will step in.
Danny Cipriani's Gloucester visit Welford Road this weekend
During an upbeat video, which outlined the creation of an off-field job to replace Murphy’s, chief executive Andrea Pinchen and chairman Peter Tom did their best to sound on the same wavelength.
Helpfully, they stressed that Underwood’s departure had nothing at all to do with Murphy going. Borthwick was also prompted to rubbish the notion that the end of last season represented a “free hit”.
More than once, apparently as a means of projecting control and dismissing any sense of chaos, Tom referenced the report into Leicester’s administration compiled by Pat Howard in 2019.
It would be interesting to ask Howard for his unfiltered view on how Murphy, a former Tigers teammate, had been rapidly promoted up the chain of command, without any meaningful opportunity to settle or develop, before emerging as a sitting duck.
Club captain Tom Youngs insisted on Wednesday that Borthwick had always been in charge of all rugby matters. The hierarchy and division of labour had certainly been hazier in Murphy’s summer press calls.
Nemani Nadolo on the run for Leicester Tigers last season
Revisionist history or not, Leicester face Gloucester on Saturday at Welford Road, one of just six Premiership fixtures they won last season. Tigers will be without a number of first-team regulars due to international call-ups and isolation protocols, though. Aled Walters, their World Cup-winning fitness guru, has been busy.
Nemani Nadolo’s plight sums it up. He joined Leicester as an ex-international, bringing the bonus of greater availability, but came out of Test retirement for the Autumn Nations Cup. And then Fiji’s tournament was thrown into disarray by a Covid-19 outbreak.
Richard Wigglesworth is poised to make his Tigers debut. Earlier this month, the scrum-half provided a typically forthright quote about his latest career move.
“Leicester Tigers is the biggest club in the country and I am relishing the challenge,” he said. “It is a club that that want to get back to the top and that isn’t easy… but I am not interested in easy.”
That is just as well. Leicester supporters could well be in for another difficult year, but they would settle for any semblance of progress over another soap opera episode.