Once mighty Leicester Tigers reduced to tame pussy cats that leaves Matt O’Connor’s future in peril already

Saturday’s humiliating six-try defeat saw the 10-time Premiership champions roll over and have their vulnerable belly tickled that leaves uncomfortable questions needing answers urgently

Sam Peters
Sunday 02 September 2018 12:15
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Matt O'Connor is under growing pressure at Leicester Tigers after their poor start to the season
Matt O'Connor is under growing pressure at Leicester Tigers after their poor start to the season

If Matt O’Connor believed the pressure on him before the season began was unfair he must accept the torrent of criticism directed at Leicester Tigers for the manner of their six-try defeat at Sandy Park on Saturday.

Not a shot was fired in anger as the 10-time champion club kicked off their Gallagher Premiership season with the limpest of limp displays.

It seems extraordinary that talk of regime change at Welford Road is already high on the agenda so early in the season but so complete was Leicester’s six-try demolition by Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs it is hard to see the Australian surviving if radical change doesn’t occur soon.

This defeat was not in isolation on O’Connor’s watch.

Last season Leicester failed to reach the play-offs for the first time since 2004, suffering a catalogue of humiliations in the process. Their European campaign was arguably the worst in the club’s history.

With that in mind, the best-supported and most successful English rugby club of the professional era desperately needed a clear and present sign that the summer had not been wasted.

Eighty minutes into the new season and the only signs around Welford Road now are warning ones.

Tigers were outplayed in every single department and their under-pressure head coach knew it.

"We have to fix the things that are not up to speed, we have to be better at the set piece and look after the ball better,” O’Connor said. “We have to get ourselves into scoring positions – there were very few rucks at the Exeter end today."

In the old days if Leicester were crap, at least they were nasty.

Here, at Sandy Park they rolled over like pussy cats who’d drunk too much cream.

Henry Slade scores one of Exeter's six tries against Leicester

Their once-vaunted pack were completely outclassed by an Exeter eight brimming with vim, vigour and precision with No 8 Sam Simmonds bringing pace and direction to everything he did and openside flanker Matt Kvesic finally looking like the player we knew he could be.

Don Armand on the blindside was typically excellent while lock Sam Skinner and hooker Jack Yeandle were the pick of a magnificent tight-five display from the home side.

By the end, Exeter’s backs were scoring tries for fun as Leicester failed to land a single blow in the latest underwhelming performance on O’Connor’s watch.

Even a backline dripping with international calibre failed to excite as they looked disjointed, disorganised and in some cases patently unfit for purpose.

No-one would wish the plague of injuries which have cursed former England centre Manu Tuilagi in recent times upon anyone but his lack of mobility around the field on Saturday indicated he still has a long way to go before he is fit enough from the Premiership, let alone the international stage.

Manu Tuilagi remains a long way from full fitness

“We knew some of Leicester’s players hadn’t had a huge amount of game time in pre-season,” Baxter said. “It’s always a difficult balance to strike when you have a long season ahead. We know it will be a different proposition when we play them at Welford Road (in April).”

Whether O’Connor remains at the helm by then is in the balance. Tigers must improve and improve fast, starting with Newcastle at home this Saturday.

For Exeter, there are no such worries. Baxter looks to have spent his summer wisely and with Jack Nowell and new-signing Alex Cuthbert closing in on a return to fitness following recent surgery, they have firepower to add to an already potent match-day squad.

Olly Woodburn, one of six Exeter try-scorers, could face a spell on the side-lines following a nasty clash of heads late in the game with Tigers No 8 Sione Kalamafoni, making Nowell and Cuthbert’s pending return even more timely.

No team in Europe will relish the prospect of playing at Sandy Park this season. Baxter’s team are a force to be reckoned with.

Matt O'Connor is under pressure to turn Leicester's form around

Sadly, the same can no longer be said of Leicester. The 10-time champions are a shadow of their former selves and mid-table mediocrity already looks about the best their fans can hope for this season.

With Bristol’s impressive opening night win over Bath on Friday sending a warning shot across every Premiership club’s bows, a so-called “big” club could well go down this season.

It couldn’t be Leicester, could it?

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