Just minutes before the Leicester Tigers women’s team stepped onto the field at Twickenham, the Women’s Intermediate final ended, with Cheltenham Tigers 2nd XV defeating Hackney Gladies and there was a jovial spirit abound; despite their loss, the side celebrated the occasion, the grand stage.
A couple of hours later, as the Leicester Tigers team accepted their silver medals, the mood was far more sombre. As the first defeat the side have suffered in their time together, many players were understandably gutted. Athletes can struggle to process a loss and can often be stuck over-analysing their performance, reliving the game in their heads and believing they should have done more. It hurts, immensely, but that is the nature of sport, one team always has to lose. Due credit must go to Cheltenham Tigers, who played a great game and deservedly retained their Championship play off title. The most important thing for the Leicester Tigers squad, now, is how you pick yourself up and use that pain as fuel to reach even greater heights.
This is a close-knit group of players, one that lifts one another when they’re feeling down. Ofure Ugiagbe, a key part of both the team and one of the senior leaders within the squad, was in the changing room after the match assuring everyone that the day’s result doesn’t define the squad or the season. Vicky Macqueen was keen to stress how proud she was of each and every person that has contributed and that the team will be stronger for the loss.
At half-time of the men’s fixture vs. Harlequins, members of the team were presented with their shirts from the 2022/23 season on the pitch at Mattioli Woods Welford Road by Leicester Tigers’ CEO Andrea Pinchen and Chairman Peter Tom, the smiles on the faces of the team told a very different story to the weekend prior. With time comes perspective and, over the past week, it is impossible for these players to feel anything other than pride for all that they have achieved.
Although the side was unable to secure a fairy tale ending to a storied season, there is a wealth of highlights to celebrate from the year. A team forged over the summer of 2022, with strong foundations from Lichfield RFC, this season was the first time the majority of the group have played with one another. They were the runaway winners of Championship North 1, scoring a huge 866 points from just 16 games, travelling around the country, from Bishop Auckland in County Durham to Cheltenham Tigers in Gloucestershire. They won special exhibition matches against the likes of the Police, the RAF and the Army. They have seen crowds of thousands cheer them on at Mattioli Woods Welford Road and will never miss an opportunity to talk about the incredible support they have received from the Tigers family, how much they appreciate every familiar face they see both at home and on their travels.
The year has not only seen the team record incredible achievements but has also seen several players make a big step-up in their development. Molly Draycott was playing for the Lichfield 2nd team as recently as last year and, in the last two weeks, has won the Player’s Player of the Year trophy at the Tigers Awards and run out in the 15 jersey at a Twickenham final. The full-back has scored 23 tries, the most in a debut season since David Senior also scored 23 in 1959/60, whilst she also crossed for tries in ten successive matches, which is an unprecedented sequence in Tigers history.
Three players, Ofure Ugiagbe, Morgan Richardson and Rebecca Church, played a part in all 18 games this season. This is a remarkable feat for Richardson and Church, to play such an integral part in a dominant side, both at the age of just 20 years old; Richardson showed exceptional versatility playing across both the back-row and scrum-half, scoring 10 tries in the process, whilst Churchy has been an anchor in a dominant scrum and it was her try that restored parity in the Championship final.
But, the same is true of Ugiagbe, who spoke candidly about how, following an injury a few years ago, she was worried she would never play the sport again, let alone be the leading appearance maker for the first ever Leicester Tigers women’s team and the first ever Fans Favourite in the team’s maiden game at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
Although one chapter has finished on a sadder note, the book of the Leicester Tigers women’s team has only begun to be written. Next season, we see the dawn of the Premier 15s.