Leicester Tigers kicked-off their pre-season programme of games with a 26-21 loss away at Ospreys on Friday night, but despite the defeat there were plenty of positives from the early season run-out.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill gave plenty of players game time, using 29 players during the course of the game in Wales.
Leicester started with a strong line-up, including former England internationals Mat Tait and Freddie Burns, while current red rose players Ellis Genge and Tom Youngs packed down in the front row, with Ed Slater providing the power from the second row and Brendon O’Connor some guile on the flank.
In fact it was an intriguing back row selection from Tigers, who effectively started with three openside flankers across the back of the scrum with the up-coming man in English rugby, Will Evans, wearing the seven shirt and Lachlan McCaffrey in the number eight jersey.
Number eight is going to be a real area of interest for Leicester this season as last week they announced their only out-and-out specialist in that position, Tonga international Opeti Fonua, was leaving the club, joining Newcastle Falcons.
Fonua only spent one season at Tigers, making just eight appearances, with injury hampering his development. But with Jordan Crane, joining Aviva Premiership new boys Bristol in the offseason, Tigers have been left with reduced options at the back of the scrum.
New signing Luke Hamilton, who came off the bench on Friday night at the Liberty Stadium, could provide cover there, as can Ed Slater, but with Bath signing the likes of Welsh international Taulupe Faletau, and Northampton Saints bringing in French star Louis Picamoles, Leicester risk slipping behind their rivals in one of the most important positions on the pitch.
Leicester’s strong starting team made inroads against Ospreys early on, with new club captain Tom Youngs burrowing his way over the try line despite the attention of two black shirted defenders.
It was a powerful try, built on good drives from the Tigers forwards of McCaffrey and O’Connor in tandem, and then neat hands from Ed Slater drew in the defence and gave Youngs the inch of room he needed to get over the line.
Burns added the conversion.
Nice handling from Slater once again created a gap for Tigers to exploit, with Genge showing his ability to run with the ball.
The pill was kept alive and young centre Jack Roberts showed some nice feet and speed to beat a couple of men, before passing to his support. Matt Smith finally crossed the line and another young academy product Tom Hardwick, on for Burns, converted for 14-0.
However Ospreys hit back in the 25th minute through hooker Sam Parry, who did his best mole impression as he burrowed under a heap of bodies from a ruck less than a metre out.
Ospreys’ have an embarrassment of riches at fly half, with Welsh first choice Dan Biggar not featuring, Sam Davies, son of former Wales coach Nigel, wore the 10 shirt and really impressed.
He set up the second Ospreys try, ghosting round the outside before feeding Josh Matavesi to score in the corner. Davies then added the conversion from the touchline.
After the break Daf Howells ran in untouched, after a looping pass set him free with the Leicester defence still regrouping from stopping an assault from the forwards on the line.
A missed tackle in the guard position around the ruck allowed Ospreys to rush through the defence and Ben John touched down for a score which smacked of a pre-season defence still getting up to speed.
Tigers had the final say when George Bateman powered over from about four metres out, driving at the feet of the defenders and then reaching out to touch down.
So Ospreys take first blood, with a visit to Welford Road on August 26 on the horizon.
Despite the result Cockerill was happy with the performance. He said: “It was a good hit-out, I think everybody got what they wanted out of it. I think both sets of players and coaches will be relatively happy.
“Both sides’ fitness looked good for this stage of the year, the set-piece was a good contest and now we’ll both have work to do before we meet again at Welford Road in a fortnight’s time.”
Manu Tuilagi came on in the second half to make a return to playing after finishing the season with a hamstring injury.
Cockerill added: “Manu had that hamstring injury at the end of the season and there was no stress tonight, it was just about going out and starting to play again for him. That is what the exercise is all about.”
Tigers will want to keep their half million pound man fit this season as he is a central part of Leicester’s exciting new-look back line, which will also include South African wing JP Pietersen as of this week as he joined up with the squad as they flew out to Italy to train and play Benetton Treviso in another warm up game on Friday.