Where Leicester and Northampton are struggling

Date published: December 15 2016

Fans of East Midlands rugby look away now.

Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers combined to lose by a score line of 75-10 to Irish opposition this past weekend. 

The only real debate surrounding those losses is which was the more embarrassing, Northampton being rocked 37-10 at home to Leinster, or Leicester, who succumbed to a 38-0 loss to Munster at Thomond Park, being nilled in Europe for the first time in 13 years? 

For two teams with such fine European pedigrees, particularly Leicester, those losses were unacceptable, even against such proficient opposition as Leinster and Munster.

Fortunately for both teams, they will have the opportunity to immediately rectify those results this coming weekend, but before the prognosis comes, the diagnosis must take place.

Let’s start with Northampton.

Dylan Hartley’s red card has been analysed inside and out over the past few days and whilst it did prove to be the opening of the floodgates which took the game beyond Saints, it’s worth noting that Leinster were still comfortably the superior team before the hooker’s dismissal. Tom Wood went as far to say he was “amazed” Northampton were still in the game at half-time.

Northampton’s scrum was overpowered by the impressive front three of Leinster, but the lineout went well, as did the effort of the forwards at the breakdown. In fact, you couldn’t have asked too much more of the second and back rows, with Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood – the inexplicable casualty for a replacement hooker following Hartley’s red card – impressing in particular.

Louis Picamoles was uncharacteristically quiet but given his form this season, it’s not something you would expect in back-to-back games. 

The clear struggle, as it has been for Saints all season, was in the backline.

The club parted ways with their attack coach Alex King earlier in the season and, unsurprisingly, they haven’t improved by not hiring a replacement for him.

JJ Hanrahan injected some level of spark, with the Irishman getting up to speed following an ankle injury, but the days of Luther Burrell marauding through holes in defences, Ben Foden cutting teams open on the counter-attack and the Pisi brothers having an almost-telepathic connection seem a long, long time ago.

With fly-half Stephen Myler sitting as deep as he ever has with Northampton, so much of the work Northampton’s backs do is behind the gain line and if you combine that with the handling errors and lack of cohesion between the midfield and outside backs, Northampton are moving sideways or backwards as often as they are moving forwards this season.

Moving on to Leicester, the reasons for their defeat were much simpler, but far harder to explain. 

Tigers, a team with such a prestigious history of physical and abrasive play, were simply outmuscled from one to fifteen, for 80 minutes in Limerick. It has to go down as the least Leicester-like performance of any Leicester team in the professional era.

There was no lacking for talent in the Leicester side that took to the field at Thomond Park, either.

Ed Slater is a Test-calibre lock, Manu Tuilagi can punch holes in concrete, there were a pair of British and Irish Lions in the Youngs brothers and Freddie Burns was coming off the back of a stellar run in the Premiership, recently winning the competition’s player of the month award.

Conversely to Northampton, Leicester’s lineout wilted and wasn’t the foundation for launching attacking play that it needs to be in a successful side, whilst the scrum held up reasonably well in the early exchanges, even in the absence of Dan Cole, with loosehead prop Ellis Genge one of the few Tigers players to come out of the game with any kind of credit.

Munster didn’t do anything revolutionary, they just overpowered Leicester at the breakdown, with ball in hand and in the one-on-one tackles. It’s a terrible cliché to use, but Munster looked like they wanted it more. 

There is no doubt the 23 Leicester players that took to the field were 100 percent focused and committed to delivering a result but whatever their preparations were in the week building up the fixture, it hadn’t prepared the Tigers players for the ferocity that their Munster counterparts brought.

Statistics need to be taken with a pinch of salt out of context, but Leinster and Munster combined for 888 metres with ball in hand to Leicester and Northampton’s tally of 494. They missed just 17 tackles compared to Saints and Tigers’ total of 45 and beat 45 defenders in stark contrast to the English pair’s paltry 17.

The losses leave Leicester and Northampton with just four points from their first three fixtures and whilst they are both mathematically still alive, common sense suggests their European journeys are over for the 2016-17 season.

With Leicester still to host two games at Welford Road and a trip to Paris to take on an out-of-sorts Racing 92, there may be the slightest glimmer of light still at the end of the tunnel for Richard Cockerill’s men, but it falls into the category of straw-clutching.

So, what can be done in a week to dramatically turn around both clubs’ fortunes?

Again, let’s start with Northampton.

The backline misses Harry Mallinder. Hanrahan helped fill those boots on Friday night but as a combination with Myler, it has never really worked for Northampton.

By shuffling Hanrahan inside to fly-half, Northampton could free up the inside centre jersey for Rory Hutchinson, who has flashed his potential in his step up to the senior side this season. Putting another skilled ball-handler into this backline, who has a fly-half’s skill set and can pull the strings and offer a second kicking option, would not be a bad move given the often directionless play of the line as a whole.

Not too much can be done to sort the scrummaging travails in a week, especially against an all-Test front row like the one Leinster have at their disposal.

The duo of Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong are bigger and stronger than Alex Waller and Paul Hill and the Northampton pair’s best hopes will lie with getting the ball in and out quickly, as well as trying to keep the scrum as low as possible against their bigger counterparts.

With George North currently sidelined and Saints looking profligate out wide, it may be time to call back Tom Collins from Rotherham, to bring some fresh impetuous to the group. Similar cases could be made for back rower Lewis Ludlam and Argentine Test centre Juan Pablo Estelles, but neither player has been registered in Saints’ European squad.

Given how inexplicable it was that Leicester just didn’t turn up at Thomond Park, it’s hard to pinpoint what changes could turn it around for them.

Every player in that 23 has the ability to be successful at the highest level of club competition, with many having proven it plenty of times with Leicester in the past.

If fit and ready after his England duties, Cole should be the first name on the teamsheet. That is a given. One change, that won’t be popular with Tigers fans, could be to turn to George McGuigan at hooker. 

He was signed from Newcastle in the off-season to bring more size and set-piece stability to the hooker position and with the lineout faltering at the weekend, he has earned the opportunity to bring back that set-piece dominance Leicester were once famed for. 

Without wanting to pin the loss at the weekend on Tom Youngs’ shoulders – the whole team was culpable – Harry Thacker is a dynamic player who has rarely let Leicester down when called upon and could provide impact off the bench or even starting, whether that be as a hooker or in the back row. 

Tuilagi saw very little of the ball at outside centre and whilst you can make a relatively safe assumption that Leicester will see more possession at Welford Road than they did at Thomond Park, moving him inside to the 12 jersey could be a way of manufacturing him more touches and therefore more opportunities to bring his skills to bear. It would also open up the outside centre spot for Peter Betham, undoubtedly the position he has looked most threatening in since his arrival from the Waratahs last year.

With Mat Tait, Telusa Veainu and JP Pietersen all injured, Leicester’s back three resources are thin. 

Should Betham move inside, they could give Tom Brady a promotion from the bench – a player they effectively parted ways with the highly-promising Paolo Odogwu for – or throw a wildcard out on to the wing, such as George Catchpole or Jack Roberts. 

By moving Betham to 13, the midfield would be better linked to the outside backs than it is with Tuilagi and bringing those wings into play more than they were able to in the first leg will be key to preventing Munster from constricting Tigers as successfully as they did on Saturday.

With pride reeling in both the Northampton and Leicester squads, these return fixtures with Leinster and Munster are worth circling on your calendar. 

No miracles are going to occur this week. Neither team is going to transform into Saracens or Wasps overnight, but there will be a reaction, of that you can be sure.

These are gut check moments in both teams’ seasons and though European salvation is extremely unlikely now, neither side can afford to take the negative momentum of those kind of performances back into the Premiership.

by Alex Shaw