Inside the Tigers’ Den - Flood’s departure creates a problem at ten

Toby Flood in action for Leicester Tigers. Tiger Images
Toby Flood in action for Leicester Tigers. Tiger Images
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So it’s official - Leicester’s club captain and first choice fly-half Toby Flood is leaving after six years of competing at the top of the game with Tigers.

While the 28-year-old is not everyone’s idea of a classic fly-half, he has consistently proven to be among the best players in his position in the league, leading him to gain 60 international caps and become the most experienced player in England’s current elite squad.

On Saturday, after much speculation and after his side had just suffered their record Premiership defeat, a 49-10 trouncing at the hands of league leaders Saracens, Leicester’s glum director of rugby Richard Cockerill confirmed Flood will be playing elsewhere next season.

Where is yet to be decided, with French Top 14 money-bags Toulouse and Toulon the lead suitors for his signature.

With Flood’s announcement in mind I wonder how Cockerill is feeling to have lost two players with the ability to not only be top Premiership fly-halves but also top international players.

This month former IRB junior world player of the year and ex-Tiger George Ford has been voted Aviva Premiership player of the month, The award is worthy recognition of the way he has helped transform a developing Bath side into legitimate top four contenders, as signified by their 14-3 battering of Harlequins at The Rec on Saturday.

If England head coach Stuart Lancaster is brave enough to look past the diminutive fly-half’s size then he has the skill-set to become an international star.

Leicester were lucky enough to have six British and Irish Lions this summer but one got away. Billy Twelvetrees, who has recently skippered Gloucester after moving to the West Country club 18 months ago, has now solidified his place in the England set-up.

His performances on tour with England in Argentina, and a dearth of injuries, saw him get an emergency call up to the Lions.

While Twelvetrees, who scored all of the Cherry and Whites’ points in their win over Worcester yesterday, would be a useful asset back at Welford Road, Ford is a much bigger loss to the club. At the moment his goal kicking occasionally lets him down, but he has the exceptional skills and abilities required to go into the next stratosphere, up in the ratified air that only the likes of Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson breathe.

What seems certain is his best days are still ahead of him and he has had many fine days already, including winning the Aviva Premiership and LV= Cup with Tigers.

However Cockerill is not resting in his pursuit of a suitable replacement and is setting his sights high.

The early contenders appear to be 23-year-old England and Gloucester fly-half Freddie Burns and Wales and Scarlets number ten Rhys Priestland.

Priestland, 26, has 25 caps for Wales and is an established fly-half, winning a Six Nations Grand Slam and getting to the World Cup semi-final in 2011.

Burns, with just three international run-outs would be a relative gamble for a club of Tigers’ size and ambition but the youngster has undoubted talents and could be lethal in attack behind a dominant pack. A luxury which he has not been afforded at Gloucester this year.

What is certain is Tigers are going to need to get busy in the transfer market because at the moment Ryan Lamb does not have the ability to lead the team, as displayed on Saturday against Saracens.

To be fair to Lamb, Leicester conceded defeat before kick off when they named a weakened starting team.

Cockerill rested his first choice front-row and Julian Salvi for the match away at Alliance Park after two battering Heineken Cup encounters had taken its toll on the already injury-depleted squad.

In comparison Saracens had two easy run-outs against Italian side Zebra.

Despite the imbalance between the teams it was a closer match than the score would suggest with yellow cards proving costly for Leicester. However, there can be no real excuses as they were well and truly played off the park by a side who were more clinical and more urgent in both defence and attack.

Maybe Cockerill did not want to show his full hand ahead of what is shaping up to look like a play-off match at the end of the season. Who knows perhaps it will even be the grand final.

In other news

It was a dark day for those who follow the green, red and white, but one of the few bright spots was the return Mat Tait.

The full-back played his first game of the season for Leicester having had 40 minutes on loan with Nottingham last weekend.

The former England international, who had not played for Leicester this season following complications with an ankle injury, excelled in staggeringly difficult conditions on Saturday.

He looked reassured under the high ball and countered with confidence in broken play.

His return comes as a welcome boost for the club ahead of two tough home fixtures against Sale and Bath over the festive period.