Guinness Premiership Previews: Leicester
After two consecutive defeats at Twickenham in the Premiership final, this is an important season for Pat Howard's Tigers. Failure to reach the final will mean they're going backwards. Another runner-up mantle, and they're standing still. Which means that, to be viewed as a successful season for the "East Midlands giants", as I must refer to them to win my cliche badge, this needs to be the season where the Twickenham showpiece is won, rather than convincingly lost as it has been two years running. Of course, there's also a ready supply of rotten fruit to be thrown should the Heineken Cup end before the semi-finals for Tigers, tough pool or no tough pool. Who'd be a coach, eh?
COACH: Pat Howard's appointment to the post was a popular one among the fans, who remember him with immense affection from his days as a player at Welford Road. A team that had done as much as it was going to under Dean Richards needed fresh impetus, and who better to give it than a young coach with new ideas? Oh, and a sidekick in Richard Cockerill who always gives the impression that while he likes you now and is prepared to be your friend, make one false move and you can say goodbye to your puppy. Something that sticks in the collective Crumbie craw, however (and try saying that ten times fast after necking tequila shots) is Howard's squad-rotation policy. Often between Premiership games, he'll change pretty much his whole pack, and on occasion he'll give a start to Leon Lloyd - the Matalan Tom Varndell. When it works, it looks like a tactical masterstroke. When it doesn't, it's more like complacency.
KEY MAN: There are a few candidates for this one. The 8-9-10 pivot of Corry, Ellis and Goode are England squad regulars, with at least one of them usually starting (as captain, that would be Corry). In form, Geordan Murphy plays as though carried along by angels and is the full-back Ireland would love him to be. But the man who garners most newsprint at the moment is Tom Varndell. His summer in Australia could have gone better. Even his biggest fan would admit that he didn't play well, particularly in the first test. But it's the nature of the player that he'll try things and look to get involved, and for Tigers it regularly comes off. The Premiership's top try-scorer last season, he's far more than just a finisher. He's clever, he's strong, but most of all he's fast. By Christ, is he ever fast. With the broadsword of Alex Tuilagi on one wing, the rapier Varndell makes up a combination that, when it clicks, frightens the bejeesus out of man, woman and child.
NEW BLOOD: While rumours abound about Aaron Mauger possibly gracing the Welford Road turf this coming season, so far the signings have been more to the squad end of things, with the inevitable international exodus needing to be catered for. The signing of exciting Leeds number eight Jordan Crane is the most obvious nod to this - where there is no Corry, there will be Crane. The addition of Irish hooker Gavin Hickie gives an alternative to George Chuter, who has just broken into the England XV. What has caused many people to wonder is the acquisition of two Munster reserve half-backs. Paul Burke and Frank Murphy were as often as not not even second choice for Declan Kidney. Maybe Howard has seen something few other people have seen, maybe he just needs people to carry Andy Goode's tees. Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni comes in, so that Graham Rowntree can get to the age of 40 without being a candidate for Six Million Dollar Man-type surgery.
PROGNOSIS: Howard seems to be banking on the fact that the team has had another season to gel, and the squad is looking stronger overall. The absence of Austin Healey will at least dampen down the loathing from opposing fans, but there's no doubt what Leicester must do this season. Wasps seem to have hit a wall, and their crown as top side in England is up for grabs. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, so Tigers will need to break Sale's fingers and pocket that crown. And in Europe, the games against Munster will be the measure. Due to the circus-style seeding policy, one of the top Heineken teams may disappear before Easter. If it is to be Tigers, that Premiership trophy had better have green, white and red tied to it for the season not to be consigned to the "Forgettable" archive.
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