Richard Cockerill may have spent his playing career in the darkened recesses of the scrum, but he recognises a bright-spark creative back when he sees one – unlike certain England coaches down the years, it might be pointed out. Hence the Leicester director of rugby’s determination to keep Mathew Tait, the great lost talent of red-rose rugby, at Welford Road if it is humanly possible.
Tait has agreed a move to the French club Bayonne at the end of the campaign, but the Basques are in serious danger of relegation from the elite Top 14 league and there is also talk of a merger with neighbouring Biarritz, who went through the trapdoor last season and will be stuck in the second tier again next term. As a result of this uncertainty, the outside centre’s switch across the Channel is by no means sure to happen.
“It’s a long way from a conclusion,” said Cockerill, who intends to play Tait in his optimum midfield position, rather than at full-back, in this weekend’s Premiership semi-final with Bath – a decision that will pit him against Jonathan Joseph, the current England No 13, in an individual contest that should satisfy even the most demanding of purists. “It’s a ‘wait-and-see’ situation, not a dead duck, and it may well be that he stays here. If there is a chance of it happening I’ll pursue it, because Mathew has been very good for us.”
Cockerill also suggested that Tait might add value to the World Cup training squad being named by the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, especially now that another Leicester centre, the errant Manu Tuilagi, has put himself off-limits by getting on the wrong side of the law. That may be a long shot, although the 29-year-old’s form would certainly justify a late discussion among the red-rose hierarchy.
Tuilagi’s demise is more likely to open the door for the uncapped Wasps midfielder Elliot Daly, who has experience with the second-string Saxons and offers goal-kicking expertise as an added extra. There is also some excitement around the candidacy of the high-performing Saracens youngster Maro Itoje, whose impact as a multitasking back-five forward has been among this year’s most eye-catching developments.
Meanwhile, the Championship promotion race is getting serious – and not before time, seeing as it has been under way since last September. Bristol, armed with the billionaire backing of the financial services tycoon Stephen Lansdown as well as players as experienced as Gavin Henson, Dwayne Peel and Ryan Jones (three Test Lions from Wales) and the Samoa captain David Lemi, will take on Worcester at Ashton Gate in the first leg of a two-match, winner-takes-all final.
It is no secret that the men who run the Premiership want both clubs in the top flight, hence the talk of league expansion and a suspension of relegation from the start of next season. But this season is prey to existing arrangements, so only one of the contenders will make it out of the Championship and into the big time.
Bristol have the inventive Matthew Morgan back at outside-half, while Mitch Eadie, one of their most effective players, is fit to start at No 8 after recovering from a shoulder injury.
Worcester can call on the full-back Chris Pennell, highly regarded in the England set-up, and have players as good as Agustin Creevy, the Argentine hooker, and the Wales forward Jonathan Thomas in their pack. A sell-out is expected and the stakes are high.Reuse content