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Andy Goode: 'Those at the very top at Welford Road got it wrong for a while with the route they went down'

By Andy Goode

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It is 20 years ago this week since Leicester lifted their first European Cup and this weekend’s Challenge Cup final might just be the first significant step on their way back to the top.

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There’s no sugar coating it, win or lose, it isn’t the same at all as the Parc des Princes in 2001 but we’ve seen the likes of Sale and Harlequins win Europe’s second tier trophy in the past and use it as a springboard for further success.

It has been a barren few years for Tigers since they last made it to the Premiership play-offs in 2017, and the decline had begun before that with their long streak of domestic final appearances ended in 2014, but Steve Borthwick has them well on the road to recovery.

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In truth, Geordan Murphy still deserves a lot of the credit for the resurgence Leicester are enjoying now because he picked up the pieces after the club had chopped and changed between Richard Cockerill, Aaron Mauger and Matt O’Connor in a short space of time.

He nurtured the likes of Freddie Steward, Joe Heyes, Tommy Reffell, Jack van Poortvliet and others and brought them through into the first team. Together with a handful of new foreign imports, most of whom Geordan also signed, they are now starting to have a big impact.

That academy production line is definitely something that was overlooked for a period and now it is bearing fruit after there was greater investment in it and focus on its importance under Murphy.

Leicester Borthwick Youngs Murphy

(Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

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George Ford, the Youngs brothers and Dan Cole and a few others all came up through the ranks a long time ago but there was a dearth of top-quality players coming out of the academy and into the first team for quite a while after them.

The youth setups weren’t really the same back in 2001 but a lot of that year’s Heineken Cup winning side were local or fully ingrained into the club. In this crop, Calum Green has returned after a few years away, Harry Wells has stepped up and then there are the likes of Tom Youngs, who bleeds green.

Rugby isn’t like football where if you’re a top club like a Manchester City, you probably can buy in all of your talent and maybe just have one or two youth team players break through every decade. You need those players who have been nurtured through and want to do everything they can for the club.

Those at the very top at Welford Road got it wrong for a while with the route they went down, all the hiring and firing created uncertainty for players and their recruitment policy just wasn’t up to scratch.

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For too long short-termism prevailed and there was a distinct lack of succession planning but hopefully that era has come to an end now and it does look like a corner is being turned.

It isn’t the elite European competition but lifting a trophy at Twickenham would lay down a marker that the club has begun the journey back to the heights of Paris in 2001.

Leicester European Cup Kay

(Photo by David Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

In terms of the game itself, there might be parallels between this one and that final at the Parc des Princes a couple of decades ago because I think it’s going to be a real battle in the forwards.

Borthwick is trying to claim that Leicester are “massive underdogs” but I don’t think they are at all. I can’t see it being a particularly free-flowing game of rugby but Tigers might be able to come up with a moment of quality or two to win it, as we did all those years ago.

I’m looking forward to seeing how my old protégé Alex Lozowski goes at fly-half up against Ford and the selections of Richard Wigglesworth and Benoit Paillaugue ahead of Ben Youngs and Cobus Reinach tell a story as well.

There won’t be a lot of rugby played in their own half by either team, it’ll be a monstrous physical confrontation in the forwards and the territory battle and kicking game will be to the fore.

It’s too simplistic to say that Borthwick has brought back that old school Leicester DNA but he certainly has got the forward pack playing a similar type of hard-nosed rugby to the one that made the club so successful.

It isn’t about razzle-dazzle and fun and style under Borthwick but the identity he’s brought revolves around hard work and grit and that has got them to a Challenge Cup final.

Whether that can take Leicester back to the top and into Premiership and Champions Cup finals again remains to be seen but they’ve only won one Anglo-Welsh Cup in the past eight years since they last lifted the Premiership title in 2013 and this could certainly prove to be a springboard for them.

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Andy Goode: 'Those at the very top at Welford Road got it wrong for a while with the route they went down'

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