Richard Cockerill sings the same sad old song in the aftermath of Leicester’s heavy defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill.
[Imagine this being read out a la Off The Ball’s Ciaran Murphy]:
“I don’t think you have the financial clout to compete at the very top end, especially if you have injuries. You haven’t got the money to have the depth of squad. That’s not a criticism of anybody, that’s the fact of it.”
Cockerill has never done anything to endear him to the rugby public at large, so it’s always a treat to hear him bleat about how hard Leicester have it. As an organization, the Tigers have been the bully-boy of English rugby for well over a decade, and it’s nigh-on impossible to feel any sympathy for them whatsoever. As any good Hardy Boys story would tell you, it’s important to put the boot into a bully when he’s down. Hmmm … it’s been a while since I read the exploits of Frank and Joe, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they were getting at.
Robert ‘Mekon’ Kitson of the Grauniad is obviously more than aware of the repetitive nature of Cockerill’s typically graceless post-match comments, and, rather than riding to the defense of the Premiership [as English writers have been wont to do in the past] takes him up on them:
“But listening to the former England hooker after the game, as he ticked off the excuses he was refusing to use – salary cap, injuries, refereeing decisions, the heavy Christmas league programme – was to be conscious of a persistently stuck record.”
Getting back to Cockerill’s whining: Leicester have 47 contracted players listed on their website, in contrast to Ulster’s 39. Complaints about the depth of squad are pretty rich when you’ve got eight more players in your squad than your opponents – that’s half a team!
Unlike Ulster, Leicester aren’t restricted in either the number of foreign players they recruit nor what positions they can be recruited in. Like the other Irish provinces, Ulster have 5 Non-Ireland Eligible [NIE] players and one ‘project player’: in contrast, the Tigers have no fewer than 12 non-English players:
- Marcus Ayerza, Horacio Agulla [Argentina]
- Julian Salvi [Australia]
- Scott Hamilton, Boris Stankovich, Craig Newby [New Zealand]
- Geordan Murphy, Niall Morris, Jeremy Staunton [Ireland]
- Steve Mafi [Tonga]
- Martin Castrogiovanni [Italy]
- Alesana Tuilagi [Samoa]
So Leicester have got both a bigger squad and more freedom to recruit players than Ulster do. This really is the ultimate hard-luck story. It’s the rugby equivalent of Angela’s Ashes.
To be fair to Cockerill, Leicester were missing three players – Louis Deacon [average international, though good at this level], Manu Tuilagi [very dangerous at any level] and Toby Flood [flakey, but talented]. Now, even allowing for those missing players, they had rakes and rakes of well-established internationals in their starting line-up:
- Geordan Murphy [72 Irish caps, 2000-],
- Alesana Tuilagi [27 Samoa caps, 2002-],
- Horacio Agulla [34 Argentina caps, 2005-],
- Ben Youngs [17 English caps, 2010-],
- Tom Croft [34 English caps, 2008-],
- Martin Castrogiovanni [82 Italian caps, 2002-],
- Marcus Ayerza [34 Argentina caps, 2004-]
It’s interesting to look at Leicester in the light of that break-up of player backgrounds. Like Toulouse, Leicester are regarded as a European powerhouse and are a self-financing club, as opposed to a region operating under the auspices of a union, like the Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams.
(1 – 8) M. Ayerza; R. Hawkins; M. Castrogiovianni; S. Mafi; G. Parling; T. Croft; J. Salvi;
Replacements (16 – 23) G. Chuter; B. Stankovich; D. Cole; E. Slater; B. Woods;
- Geordan Murphy [Ireland], ¢
- Horacio Agulla [Argentina], ¢
- Alesana Tuilagi [Samoa], ¢
- Marcos Ayerza [Argentina], ¢
- Martin Castrogiovanni [Italy], ¢
- Steve Mafi [Tonga], ¢
- Julian Salvi [Australia]
- Boris Stankovich [New Zealand]*
- Jeremy Staunton [Ireland]*, ¢
- Scott Hamilton [New Zealand]*, ¢
- Anthony Allen [Gloucester 2005-09], ¢
- Tom Waldrom [Hurricanes 2004-09, Crusaders 2009-10]
- Geoff Parling [Newcastle, 2003-09],
- Rob Hawkins [Bath, 2004-10]
- Ben Woods [Newcastle, 2004-08]*
- George Chuter [Saracens 1997-2001], *¢
- Matt Smith 
- Billy Twelvetrees 
- Ben Youngs , ¢
- Tom Croft , ¢
- Dan Cole , * ¢
- Ed Slater *
- Sam Harrison *
* – denotes starting on the bench vs Ulster
Looking at that, the immediate observation is that only four Leicester-bred players were in the starting line-up – Smith, Twelvetrees, Youngs and Croft. A fully-fit Leicester with Deacon, Tuilagi and Flood in the starting lineup would likely have seen both Smith and Twelvetrees dropped [for Tuilagi and Flood respectively] and Deacon in the second row. That still would have only seen the Leicester-bred contingent at four: Deacon, Croft, Youngs and Tuilagi.
In contrast, Ulster can look down their team-sheet and list off Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble as players who have spent their entire professional lives at the province, and another Ulsterman in Iain Humphreys who has tasted the grass on the other side of the fence [is that what you do when it’s greener?] and come home. Seven of their eight subs on the night are one-province men, the exception being Aussie-born, Irish-qualified fullback Adam D’Arcy.
Leicester are a big, successful team – the biggest, most successful team in Engand, it’s fair to say – so it’s not as though their academy players are consistently being poached by other clubs. In fact, they have a cosy enough set-up with Nottingham where talented youngsters will play a year or two of RFU Championship rugby with the smaller club before coming back to break their way into the Tiger’s first team.
Going on the team selected and the performances of the home-grown, English capped Leicester players Youngs, Cole and Croft – insipid to a man – you’d have to say that much as Cockeril protests his case, he’s not doing all that good a job at either getting good performances from his existing players or doing much to improve the abilities of the young players at his club.