Rugby Union Preview: Leicester, London Irish
The Sport Review’s exclusive club-by-club guide provides you with all you need to know about the latest news, transfers and predictions for the season ahead.
Guinness Premiership Preview: Leicester Tigers
Welford Road 23,500. Last season: 1st Champions
Leicester were crowned Champions for the fifth time in a decade, during which, the league has undergone a number of name changes but undoubtedly the best team in England has not changed. Leicester have continued to win silverware regularly and only Wasps have come close to earning that same label. The Tigers have won the Premiership a record eight times and have appeared in the Heineken Cup final no less than five times having won it twice (2001/02).
Last year they saw off London Irish in the Guinness Premiership final by the smallest of margins winning 10-9 in front of a packed Twickenham- 81,601 the official attendance. They were unable to do the double as they narrowly lost to Leinster in the Heineken Cup Final, 19-16 at Murrayfield.
The Irish international full-back, Geordan Murphy, has been rewarded for his outstanding performances and loyalty to the east midlands club by being appointed the new club captain. Tiger’s fans’ favourite, with over 250 appearances to his name, will try to emulate the same success which the Tigers achieved under two former captains Martin Johnson and Martin Corry. The two vice captains under Murphy will be All Black Aaron Mauger and Englishman Louis Deacon.
These are exciting times to be a Leicester fan as Welford Road, goes under redevelopment. The ground will eventually have a capacity of 30,000, which will be the biggest club rugby ground in the UK. The £60 million job is underway and the official opening of the new ‘Caterpillar’ stand will be marked by a friendly against the world champions South Africa (Friday 6 November).
The managing director of SA Rugby, Andy Marinos, said: “Leicester are a powerhouse of European club rugby and can field a host of England and overseas internationals and we’ll have our work cut out against them – we couldn’t have asked for a more challenging warm-up for the Test matches.”
Leicester head coach Richard Cockerill has bolstered his squad with some old faces, such as scrum-half James Grindal, who returns to his old club after seven seasons at Newcastle Falcons, as well as some less experienced players like 22-year-old Joe Duffey and Billy Twelvetrees both from National One sides, Nottingham and Bedford.
He is also looking at the possibility of signing free agent Nicolas Jeanjean after his contract with Stade Francaise expired. The former France international, who can play full-back or wing, will undergo a two week trial and play for Leicester in a pre-season friendly against Cardiff to prove his worth.
It looks unlikely that anyone will be able to topple Leicester this season with the strength and depth that the club possess. They have an abundance of talent in players such as Tom Croft, Toby Flood and Dan Hipkiss. If anyone can wrestle the Premiership from Leicester it must surely be London Irish who came oh so close last season.
In: Joe Duffey (Nottingham), Robbie Harris (Sharks), Billy Twelvetrees (Bedford), James Grindal (Newcastle Falcons), Jeremy Staunton (Wasps), Anthony Allen and Geoff Parlling (Gloucester).
Out: Martin Corry (Retired), Ayoola Erinle (Biarritz Olympique), Marco Wentzel (Leeds Carnegie), Tom Varndell (Wasps), Seru Rabeni (Gloucester), Santiago Bonorino (Northampton), Benjamin Kayser (Stade Francais), Ben Herring (Retired), Julien Dupuy (Stade Francais), Derick Hougaard (Saracens).
TSR writers’ prediction: 1st – Champions
Guinness Premiership Preview: London Irish
Madejski Stadium 24,200. Last season: 3rd
So last season London Irish were unlucky not to clinch the title, after brushing Harlequins aside in the semi-final, 17-0, and losing to Leicester in the final.
New faces have arrived at London Irish to help them take that one step forward. A new chief executive, Andy Martin, replaces Graham Walpole. Martin said he wants to “assist London Irish in becoming the best team in Europe – both on and off the pitch.”
Exiles legend Justin Bishop returns to the club as assistant academy manager meanwhile Dave Ellis arrives as the new Defence coach. He is highly regarded within the coaching world and has been defence coach for the French national team for ten years. He will continue working with France but also work alongside Head Coach Toby Booth and alongside Attack coach Mike Catt for London Irish.
Booth has brought in Ryan Lamb from Gloucester and commented on his new acquisitions, “Recruitment is the most important element in maintaining success. We have continued to adopt a quality rather than a quantity approach as well as developing and rewarding our home grown talent.”
Players such as Lamb and the promising prop-forward James Tideswel, signed from Plymouth Albion RFC, will need to show what they can do meanwhile well established backs, Delon Armitage and Peter Hewat, will have to continue racking up the points if the club are to fulfill their ambition.
Bishop explained that a top four finish is what is expected of the club, “As Boothy says, we are putting the accelerator down this year. It’s not just staying where we are and be happy with what we are doing.”
Perhaps with these seven new players and four academy players being promoted to the senior squad London Irish will be able to compete with Leicester. Although it will be difficult for the Reading-based club to improve on last year’s performance-it does seem like they wasted their best opportunity to win the Premiership- however TSR predicts another top four finish and sees the Exiles as best placed to mount a formidable challenge on the champions, Leicester.
In: Ryan Lamb (Gloucester), Paulica Ion (Bath), George Stowers (Kobe- JPN), Jamie Lennard (Doncaster), Chris Malone (Harlequins), Andy Buist (Newcastle), James Tideswell (Plymouth), Andy Perry (Newcastle).
Out: James Bailey (Lyon), Richard Skuse (Saracens), Eoghan Hickey and Warren Fury (Wasps), James Hudson (Newcastle Falcons), Shane Geraghty (Northampton Saints), Tonga Lea’aetoa (Toulon), Dominic Shabbo (London Welsh).
TSR writers’ prediction: 2nd