Saturday, 28 March 2015

Premiership Preview - Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs

Ah, back to reality.  And I'm not just talking about the international stars who find themselves returning to the weekly grind of the day job, competing in the Aviva Premiership, I'm talking about myself (as usual too) having just returned from a two week holiday.  Luckily though, it helps when you have something to keep you busy and to look forward to - I have a wedding to plan (despite my other half seemingly deciding all the details within 2 minutes of me popping the question) and the England stars can return to the closest fought Premiership playoff battle in recent memory - not to mention the fact that it's their final few chances to impress the boss prior to World Cup selection.

Leicester find themselves in somewhat familiar territory, lurking around those playoff spots despite not really getting out of third gear this season.  Of course, when you consider the injury list they still have, you can give some sympathy to them (they are arguably missing 7 front line players in Kitchener, Slater, Croft, Williams, Allen, Tuilagi and Camacho) but the fact is that they tactically have been too lateral, too predictable and lacking in any variety.  But against Sale, in their last Premiership home game, there were finally signs that things are starting to click - big players hitting gaps around the fringes and players finally starting to look to offload out of the tackle.  They also have a far quicker back row than Exeter on Saturday and some real pace on the wings, so the signs are that they will attempt to give the ball some width and move the Chiefs pack around from the off.

Exeter had a wobble a few months ago but that seems like a distant memory now, and they sit in second spot, despite 4 teams being within two points of them in the chase for a home semi final.  A large part of their success has been the form of their precocious youngsters - particularly in the backline, where Slade, Hill and Nowell have been terrorising defences for most of the season.  That being said, when you come to Welford Road there's no point in having a fancy backline unless you have the pack to match up to the Tigers, and coach Rob Baxter has gone for sheer size and power up front, with the 7 shirt and joining big Dave Ewers and ex-Tiger Tom Waldrom in the back row - and you can bet the Tank will be wanting to have a big game to show Richard Cockerill why he shouldn't have let him go.  There's plenty of physicality there but, when compared to Leicester's combination of Salvi, Gibson, and Crane, not a lot of speed or subtlety; it will be interesting to see how that battle plays out.

I'm not saying the Six Nations was a holiday for the internationals, but it's now that the real work starts.

Leicester Team News
England quartet Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole and Geoff Parling start for Leicester after international duty.  Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini is on the bench after captaining Italy in his 75th Test cap last weekend.  England internationals Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi, Ed Slater and Anthony Allen remain on the long-term absentee list.

Starting Line-up: Tait; Thompstone, Smith, Bai, Benjamin; F. Burns, B. Youngs (capt); Ayerza, T. Youngs, Cole, De Chaves, Parling, Gibson, Salvi, Crane.

Subs: Ghiraldini, Mulipola, Balmain, Whetton, Pearce, Harrison, Bell, Goneva.

Key Player

Ben Youngs.  The Tigers' stand-in captain was unbelievable against the French and a deserved man-of-the-match – and if there's one thing to be said about Youngs, it's that when he has his tail up he is very hard to play against.  When he's confident his decision making is not only accurate but also lightening quick, meaning that the fringe defences don't even realise what is happening by the time the scrum half is scooting around them.  He is the heartbeat of Leicester's attacking game – when his pack give him decent ball – and he will be looking to bring in the big carriers around the fringes throughout the game.

Exeter Team News
Only two of Exeter's side that played in their LV= Cup final loss, Mitch Lees and Carl Rimmer, keep their places.  Thomas Waldrom returns to Welford Road for the first time since his summer transfer while Dean Mumm captains the team from flanker.  Lees packs down alongside Damian Welch in the second row, while Henry Slade keeps his place at fly-half ahead of Gareth Steenson.  England winger Jack Nowell plays at centre, with Ian Whitten and Matt Jess on the flanks.

Starting Line-up:  Dollman; Whitten, Nowell, Hill, Jess; Slade, Chudley; Rimmer, Yeandle, Francis, Lees, Welch, Ewers, Mumm (capt), Waldrom.
Subs: Taione, Moon, Brown, White, Horstmann, Lewis, Steenson, James.

Key Player
Jack Nowell.  The England winger returns to the 13 shirt after a very impressive series of displays with England, and is just one part on what has to be the most exciting young three-quarter line in the country – with Slade and Hill both extremely accomplished and talented partners in crime.  Nowell has made up for his appalling rat's tail haircut and some suspect ink by literally finding his feet in the senior game this season – he might not be lightening quick, but he has sharp acceleration, a beautifully balanced running style, a great step and a bruising, nuggetty physicality that – thanks to his low centre of gravity – makes him tough to bring down.  The guy oozes class and confidence and the more he gets the ball, the more dangerous Exeter will be.

Key Battle
Freddie Burns v Henry Slade.  Two of the prodigal sons of English fly-half play – but one who is seemingly the forgotten man of international rugby, the other who has critics clamouring for his inclusion in Stuart Lancaster's world cup plans.  Slade is the younger of the two and is seemingly yet to learn what he shouldn't be able to do at senior level – he has a confidence and skill-set that allows him to pose a real threat and variation with the ball in hand, whilst maintaining a composure and maturity beyond his years.  And, for a pretty boy, he tackles blood hard, too.  Burns in many ways has the same set of skills, but perhaps with a slightly bigger locker of tricks and slightly smaller threshold for dealing with pressure, but things haven't quite gone his way so far this season – in large part thanks to the underperforming Leicester pack.  But in recent weeks, he has shown more than a few glimpses of what at one time made him the next big thing in English rugby.  Both these guys will get decent front foot ball at one time or another, and it all comes down to who has the ability to make the right calls at the right times.

Exeter, for me, have more of a threat over the park and have certainly leant towards power, rather than subtlety in their pack, particularly in the back row.  I'm surprised that Leicester have benched Goneva, their chief attacking weapon, for this one, but the Leicester side contains plenty of experience and one of the best front rows in world club rugby.  The Chiefs, on paper, will struggle in the set piece and that, at Welford Road, may well be the key to the game, no matter how much firepower they have out wide.  I do expect to see some decent rugby played by both sides but I suspect that the deciding factor will be Leicester's brute force in the scrum.  Tigers by 5.

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