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'He isn't bitter, he loves the place. He messaged me last week'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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It’s crazy how life can work out. There was Ellis Genge on Saturday evening looking as proud as punch, arriving in for his post-Gallagher Premiership final media briefing still wearing his Leicester jersey and still dangling his winners’ medal around his neck. It made for quite a change compared to finals day three years previously.

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Back then, when Saracens were defeating Exeter in the English league showpiece, RugbyPass had published an exclusive interview with Genge on the morning of that 2019 decider and it was fair to say that lifting the trophy was something furthest from his imagination with Leicester locked into a downward spiral, finishing just a single place above the relegated Newcastle.

“It’s not so much relief, it just more so highlights the fact that that is where we were at as a club,” he pondered at the time. “I’m happy that we’re not going down but more so now we can really sit back and think why we were where we were as opposed to looking at it as a positive, ‘Oh great, we have finished eleventh so we’re safe’. We have to find out why we finished eleventh.”

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There was no immediate remedy. Nine months later, when English rugby went into cold storage in March 2020 because of the pandemic, there had been no uptick in fortune and when the suspended campaign was eventually completed with Steve Borthwick taking charge for the post-lockdown restart, a repeat eleventh place finish was the outcome.

So to go from the depths of that second successive last-but-one season to deservedly win the trophy at Twickenham on Saturday just gone was quite remarkable… and quite unforeseen. Only in March last year, Neil Back reckoned on RugbyPass that success for Leicester was still a million miles away despite Borthwick arriving in and being brutally honest when initially encouragingly tackling the heads-in-the-sand situation he found there.

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“It’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to be two or three years to get to a point, probably five years until we are anywhere near competing at that top table,” warned the legendary Tigers back-rower. How brilliantly wrong he was, though, Freddie Burns clinching the title with a dramatic drop goal 15 months after the stark prediction that it mightn’t be until 2026 at the earliest that Leicester would even threaten the playoffs, never mind win the whole shooting match.

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With this mission complete four years ahead of the suggested Back timeframe, how would Genge celebrate? “We’re in (England) camp on Monday I think, eleven o’clock start so I’ll blow the roof off it probably. No, we have got a long bus trip up to Leicester, probably have a few sherbets then and then see where the nights takes us on the dingy streets of Leicester,” jibed the prop, attempting to make sense of an incredible afternoon at English rugby HQ that ended with Leicester eclipsing Saracens in a compelling 15-12 arm-wrestle.

“Very proud, I’m overwhelmed, to be honest. I did (broadcast) media outside and they said you hardly smiled but without sounding arrogant, I’d say we came to this as underdogs and everyone wrote us off. It was just lovely to see the belief that the boys had in the graft that we have done all year. When we speak behind the scenes all we talk about is what we do and what we have done. I’m just so proud to be a small part of this young group’s journey.

“I’m so overwhelmed actually that Wiggy [Richard Wigglesworth] is 40 now. To be a part of that is brilliant, to see the boys develop and achieve something so early as a tight group because a lot of them have come through the academy together, you can’t take that away from them. It’s incredible, I am just so happy for them believe it or not.

“Sarries wrote the book on the game in terms of the pressure-plus kick battle and all that and it was tight, three points, Freddie Burns, absolute cojones on him. Don’t tell him that, but it takes a lot of bottle to do something like that and Fred is a do-or-die player, so credit to him for that but it’s the things that you don’t see like Calum Green, his knee is absolutely shattered and he grafted for, what did he play, 60 minutes with like no cartilage in his knee.

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“Julian Montoya, his MCL is dust. You have got boys, who were not struggling through but carrying all these knocks, that probably don’t get the plaudits and put Freddie into positions. He has to execute, don’t get me wrong… But you don’t see the work that goes on beyond the scenes, the things that happened in the week to lead up to those moments, so it is important to recognise the unsung heroes like Greeno [Green], Coley [Dan Cole], all the boys who do all the graft and look ugly for it.”

The “ugly” gang weren’t the only ones getting a fond mention. Pretty soon, Genge was attributing kudos elsewhere, including the revelation that a post-game comment from another Leicester legend, Ian “Dosser” Smith, had bowled him over amid the delirium that was a Premiership title win in his final match for the Tigers before his 2022/23 switch back to his hometown Bristol.

“The title stuff is class, the accolades are brilliant, no one can take that away from us. But it’s more so for example Matt Smith, Brett Deacon, Dosser, Smithy’s dad. He came up to me and said, ‘You’re a proper Tiger now’ and that caught me off guard because there ain’t many people they would say that to. For a foreigner, someone that came up from the southwest, from BS4, it meant a lot to me.

“I’ll be forever grateful to them for the words of wisdom they gave me. Geordie Murphy as well, he is someone who probably obviously struggled when he was at the wheel. He has messaged me, he is not bitter, he loves the place. He messaged me last week saying, ‘All the best’. So it shows how much it means to everyone to be involved in the club.”

Tell us more about the Dosser story. “They spoke to me when I signed for Bristol (in December) and obviously that video went out then and they didn’t speak to me for a while, but as they came back in they said, ‘Look, we’ll park it and let’s win the thing’ and we have done it for the last two weeks.

“That semi-final meant a lot to Dosser with the Saints, East Midlands derby, so it has been an emotional few weeks for the Smiths and I think you’d do well to take a beer out of Matty Smith’s hand now. But look, these boys have been here for a long, long time and they deserve it. It’s brilliant to end it on a high with them.”

The Genge commendations continued, the bereaved Tom Youngs, the injured George Ford and the inspirational Leicester supporters now all getting a mention. On the recently retired Youngs, whose wife tragically passed away the week of the semi-final: “We have had a tough few months on and off the pitch, a roller coaster, ups and downs, smiles and frowns but it makes it a bit sweeter.

“Obviously, nothing is going to compensate for what happened, ever, and what a woman Tiff was. Yeah, and what a man Tommy is. I don’t want to speak too much on it but it’s just brilliant to have Tommy here. He’s a dear friend of mine and so is Ben and hopefully we put a smile on his face.”

What about Ford, the player of the Leicester season who cruelly limped off hurt 24 minutes into the final? “He’s buzzing, he has just won a Premiership… It’s the first time I have seen Fordy smile. He has been brilliant. He’s had a tough year or two for numerous reasons. On-field he has been absolutely outstanding and for someone who is pretty straight down the line, he has been absolutely incredible off the pitch with direction.

“He has chatted about this season, put his head in places he wouldn’t have before and we have seen the benefits of that, so he has been incredible all year. I’m gutted he hurt his ankle. I think he’s alright, I don’t know. He has got a boot on, a big boot. We’ll see. It doesn’t matter, we won.”

And so to the fans. “I loved hearing the Tigers chant, it was overwhelming and then the lap at the end was absolutely brilliant. All the Tigers fans stayed behind. They have been reasonably consistent. I sort of understood it when they were flinging the season cards at us when we were eleventh but they have been incredible in my time here and made me feel at home. This (title) is what they deserve. Die-hard fans and this is what you get when you stick by a team and this is what you see at the end.

“I don’t think we had much direction at that stage. We lost to Exeter the first game of the (2018/19) season, 40-6, and then we got drilled at home two or three times and it was bleak. I obviously understand the emotions. I don’t want to dig up bad memories too much, but it is class to see the resurgence… Steve always speaks about it. Success doesn’t go like a big wave all the way up. I’ve seen the highs and the lows. It has made me grow as a player and as a person.”

How would Genge like his six-year Leicester tenure to be remembered? “Tenure? What does that mean, my time here? That is a posh word to say my time here. Please, keep it simple,” he quipped. “How will I look at my time here? I’ll reflect on it at a later date, I will enjoy it with the boys for the time being.

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“I have hardly won anything, to be honest. I have always been quite close runners-up in my career so far and like I said, it is probably the best day of my career. I have loved every minute. We have worked relentlessly behind the scenes. Wind, rain, shine, we have been out there on the paddock doing the hard work and it is just class to see the rewards. It has not sunk in yet. That is why I sound quite miserable.

“I came here first of Feb 2016 and a lot of senior players had left. There was probably a bit of direction missing… So Steve has come in and instilled that belief, that work ethic because we had probably got a bit complacent in 2018/19 and got what we deserved. But you reap the rewards if you put the work in and that is what we have done.

“What you have seen is a product of all the hard work. Steve has been incredible. He hates hearing it, so I don’t really enjoy saying it! He gets really awkward – it’s quite funny, actually – but he is a class operator. You don’t come in and turn a team, what did we finish, sixth or eighth the year before and then win it the year after. He is brilliant.

“We thought we were working hard, but we weren’t. Steve and Aled Walters (Leicester’s head of physical performance) came in and we had a vile pre-season. Everyone’s back was blowing out. No one had worked that hard for years – we hadn’t seen what graft was. It was tough at the time.

“My message to the boys was, ‘Look, I know it is horrible what we are doing, let’s not pretend. Who likes being in pain and being in a hole? There are a few people who do and they’re a bit weird. I don’t like my back blowing out but you run, you hit in training, doing goal-line D all the time, 15 scrums a week – we work hard.

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“Steve and Aled don’t like going on about it, but I’m not afraid to tell you we have worked relentlessly and tirelessly to get to where we are. We know we are fit, we graft, and no one is going to drop off – that is why we came away with the trophy.”

Along the way, Borthwick had bravely asked Genge, a player with a fiery reputation, to take on the captaincy. “I was quite shocked when Steve asked me, I’d to get a HIA,” he said. “But no, Steve put his trust him me. I met him in 2014 when he came to Bristol off the back of a successful time with Japan and he has watched me grow from that 18-year-old, 19-year-old Knwole Wester to what I am today and I’m not done yet.

“I want to achieve a lot more and it will probably be tough because he is quite hard on me. Keeps me close to the floor, keeps me grounded so hopefully he doesn’t mind staying in contact with me for the next twelve months. I have enjoyed every minute with Steve. He’s f**kin’ brilliant to be blunt, he’s incredible.”

From nowhere to champions in the three years since Genge was reflecting on RugbyPass about Leicester’s dire dice with relegation. It sure is crazy how life has worked out.

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