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Conundrum over Tigers back-five combinations

It is widely acknowledged that squad balance is an increasingly tricky business in the face of rising player wages, but the back five of the scrum has become the scene of intense competition at Tigers.

If you take in even just the top few from the development ranks alongside their senior colleagues, The Tig has a list of 18 players in that back-five equation.

David Denton and Will Spencer were brought in last summer to add extra bulk and edge to a forward pack which has attracted criticism in recent seasons, while Guy Thompson’s all-action style and turnover technique have been as important as his versatility across the back row since his arrival from Wasps.

Spencer – and Denton if required – join Graham Kitchener, Mike Fitzgerald, Harry Wells and Mike Williams in the contest for second-row spots and you could make an argument in favour of any or all of them.

Kitchener has more than 150 appearances as one of the best lineout operators around and it is worth noting that only Tom Youngs has more tries for Tigers among the current forwards.

The unassuming Fitzgerald has been singled-out for praise by coach Brett Deacon for what he brings to training and preparation as well as to the team as he makes his return from injury this week, while Williams has earned plenty of plaudits for his form in the second row during the absence of many of his colleagues.

The fact that Wells, in that fine tradition of unsung Tigers, does not attract the spotlight of his colleagues does not in any way detract from his consistency or his value. “In the form of his life,” is an expression used warmly by both Brett and Geordan in reference to the nugget Wells in recent weeks.

In the back row, there is any number of combinations featuring the names of Denton, Williams, Fitzgerald, Thompson, Brendon O’Connor, Sione Kalamafoni, Tino Mapapalangi and Will Evans, with Fred Tuilagi eager to establish himself and Under-20s internationals Tommy Reffell and Sam Lewis (who can also play lock) gaining recognition too.

Kalamafoni topped the stats for carries and tackles last season and was an immediate favourite with team-mates and coaches, though he took a while to win over supporters –only gaining full acceptance after two tries in the win over Bath at Twickenham – while O’Connor is a technician who thrives on reading the game and support-play in attack and defence.

Evans, too, is a natural openside who will want to remind everyone of his qualities now that he is back from injury, and Mapapalangi brings a raw aggression as well as another lineout option from the back row.

Behind them, lock Cameron Jordan has had a taste of senior rugby and has time on his side to develop, while Henri Lavin, Thom Smith and Taylor Gough worked as an impressive back-row unit at under-18 level last season and have now started to clock up appearances in senior rugby.

That back-five equation is a tough one to call, but it is one that Geordan Murphy and forwards coach Mark Bakewell can select from a position of strength, literally.