Leicester Tigers kicked off the season with a 28-16 victory at London Irish on Sunday. It was not the dashing display of rugby which was hinted could come from this team after their impressive 35-17 win over Sale but it got the job done.
New signing Peter Betham, who has been the star of pre-season, scored Leicester’s only try of the day through an interception early in the first half and Tommy Bell, playing at fly half finished with a personal tally of 23 points, kicking seven penalties and a conversion.
It was Tigers’ third consecutive win on the opening day of the season and their seventh in a row at the Madejski stadium.
There has been rumbling amongst some fans of disappointment about the nature of the opening day victory but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the rest of the season.
First - Tigers lost to London Irish last season at Welford Road, 22-19, and while they were not at their best at the Madejski they found a way to win, which in the early stages of the season is all that really matters.
The Leicester forwards were not as dominant as you would expect.
The scrum was not its normal area of strength, there were errors in the line-out and the pack got pushed back over their own try line as Irish scored through Jebb Sinclair from a catch and drive at a line-out when they had just 14 players on the pitch.
However on a positive note the Tigers’ defence was solid all afternoon with a little help from some clumsy handling from the homeside.
Secondly this London Irish team is not the side of old, they have a new head coach in Tom Coventry who has recruited well, albeit their two biggest summer signings All Black prop Ben Franks and Scotland winger Sean Maitland were still absent playing in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup at the weekend.
Third, Leicester have been playing most of their pre-season matches with Freddie Burns pulling the strings from fly-half. To lose the five time England international a week before the start of the season with a broken jaw, picked up in Tigers’ victory over Sale, was a tremendous loss.
Burns has looked rejuvenated playing under new head coach Aaron Mauger and it’s a pity he and Owen Williams aren’t going to have to fight it out for the number 10 jersey. Williams was on the bench for the first time since he suffered knee ligament damage back in February and played the final 15 minutes of the match.
Finally, and here is the one which really counts, the Tigers team which started on Sunday probably only had just three first choice players in it with everyone fit.
Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “Considering we’ve got 20 players to come back into that squad, it is a credit to that whole squad that we put a good 23 out and got the win.”
“There were some young combinations and new combinations in the team, and they’ve come to a tough place and against a team looking to impress their new coach, and it all bodes well for us.
“It was a good battle and I think we deserved the win in the end.
“A lot of those lads came in and they’re doing a great job,”
“Tommy Bell controlled the game well and kicked his goals, and those young front rows continue to learn with time on the pitch.
“We had three or four young lads came in and we’ve taken four points away from home in the first game, which is great. The only way to learn is at the coalface in big games.
“They’ve done very well in pre-season and that is part of the learning curve. It’s great for us to expose them to that experience and come away with a win at the same time. Developing and winning is the perfect combination. We chose not to use the World Cup guys because these players have earned the right to take that opportunity and thankfully they took it pretty well.”
The three players in Sunday’s starting team who are likely to get into a first choice side are full back Mat Tait, winger (playing at centre) Peter Betham and flanker Tom Croft.
Arguably everyone else will be fighting for their starting spot with someone else.
Cockerill decided to rest his international players coming back from the World Cup, with Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Niki Goneva and Leonardo Ghirldini all back in the mix this week.
Two of the club’s summer signings have also only just linked up with the squad because of their commitments to play in the ITM Cup in New Zealand. They are scrum half Jono Kitto and flanker Brendon O’Connor who could prove to be another gem in the making.
Brought in to replace Australian openside Julian Salvi, the 25 year-old has played 42 games in Super 15 rugby with the Canterbury Crusaders and Auckland Blues and is a former New Zealand Under-20s player and winner of the World Junior Championship.
Last season O’Connor, who is also English qualified, was voted the Blues’ Player of the season and also won the club’s Players’ Player award.
O’Connor was the captain of the Hawkes Bay’ when they won the ultimate prize in New Zealand club rugby the Ranfurly Shield in 2014. His side would have retained the trophy this season as well but they suffered a shock defeat to Waikato recently despite two tries from the flanker.
Leicester are not done with their signings either. This week they have announced the addition of two men who made an impact at the World Cup.
Few made more of an impact than Tongan winger Telusa Veainu who made the second most metres out of a any player in the tournament after the group stages. Even after the quarter-final he ramins in fourth spot behind All Black Ben Smith, Canada’s star winger DTH Van Der Merwe and New Zealand’s Julian Savea.
At just 24 the winger, who was born and raised in New Zealand, representing them at under-19 and under-20 level, is also one for the future. He has played Super 15s rugby for the Melbourne Rebels and Highlanders and spent time at Canterbury and the Crusaders.
Veainu has eight international caps for Tonga since making debut in July this year in the Pacific Nations cup. He has scored four tries, two at the World Cup.
Less likely to be a regular first teamer but still a decent addition to the Tigers squad is Canadian prop Djustice Sears-Duru, who joins on a month’s trial.
The 21-year-old who was part of the Tigers academy when he was younger comes in to provide cover for injured Italian Michele Rizzo and Marcos Ayerza who is the only remaining Tiger playing in the World Cup after Argentina advanced to the semi-finals for the second time in their history with a thumping 43-20 victory over Ireland on Sunday.
There is also expected to be an announcement this week about the Leicester’s marquee signing so watch this space.
Leicester will need to step up their game this weekend when they host Harlequins on Sunday and then Wasps the following week.
Both sides look to have strengthened their squads and are prime candidates to challenge Tigers for a top four finish this season.