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'We're going to meet up at Darren Garforth's house for a socially distanced pint': 20 years on from Leicester's breakthrough European title

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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So much for the best-laid plans to mark the 20th anniversary of the breakthrough Heineken Cup title win by Dean Richards’ Tigers. A swanky reunion dinner was the idea for May 19. Instead, some of the yesteryear Leicester stars such as Ben Kay made do with a cold one at the gaff belonging to their old tighthead and the much-touted gala ball was delayed until June 25 when all the pandemic restrictions are lifted and Welford Road can welcome back glittering stars from a glorious past.

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Kay can’t wait for the hoopla to unfold. “It was meant to be Wednesday but it’s not so we are now going to meet up at Darren Garforth’s house for a socially distanced pint,” he quipped to RugbyPass with a mischievous glint in his eye. The 45-year-old BT Sport pundit will be forever remembered as one of Clive Woodward’s 2003 England World Cup winners but even that edge-of-seat classic final versus the Wallabies in Sydney doesn’t compare with the drama that unfolded on a balmy 2001 Saturday afternoon in Paris with his club pals at the Tigers.

He had only pitched up at Leicester in 1999 but there were plenty of seasoned warriors in that dressing room who were carry-overs from the amateur era and hellbent on chasing down their Heineken Cup holy grail. Shatteringly beaten in the 1997 final by Brive, they had to bide their time before they nabbed a shot of redemption in the most testing of surroundings at the Parc des Princes.

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A thriller materialised and it seemed as if the Diego Dominquez’-inspired Stade were all set to deliver, leading coming down the finishing straight before Leicester grabbed glory from the jaws of defeat, Austin Healey embarking on a dizzying run before inviting Leon Lloyd to get in at the corner for the last-gasp try that Tim Stimpson converted for a mesmerising 34-30 triumph.

“It was without a doubt my favourite rugby match,” enthused Kay, revelling in the opportunity to jog his memory to a time when Tigers were a team of household names and the envy of English rugby. “But the anxiety beforehand, I knew how much it meant to everyone at the club but particularly some of those players that were getting on towards the end of their career.

“You knew it possibly was their last chance so it felt extra responsibility because of that and then playing Stade Francais in their own back garden, beautiful weather. I can remember being in the holding room that the changing rooms fed in from either side looking out through the glass doors and there was a heat haze, so everything was blurred but you could see red, white and green on one side and the blue and red on the other.

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“Then running out to that atmosphere, it was my second season at Tigers so I was quite new to it all. It was the biggest atmosphere I had ever played in and I could remember thinking, ‘I’ll never be as nervous for a game again’ – and I genuinely never was.

“But to win it in the manner we did, the relief of that and then Dean Richards shunning the official post-match do and walking us down to the pub at the end of the street that ran between the two stadiums where all the Tigers fans were. Having a beer with the trophy and the Tigers fans was hugely special.”

Tigers went back to the well the following year, choking Munster in the 2002 Cardiff decider, but what followed over the intervening years was a gradual stagnation. Leicester were last in the final in 2009, last in the semi-finals in 2016, and with their Premiership form falling off a cliff in a domestic tournament they haven’t won since 2013, they have been consigned to the less glamorous environs of the Challenge Cup in recent times.

Second-tier activity isn’t what Tigers fans ever envisaged happening at their giant of a club but it’s a sign of how the once mighty have fallen. Steve Borthwick, though, is slowly earning his stripes in trying to treat the rot, some upward mobility in the Premiership enhanced by their run to Friday’s European final versus Montpellier.

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The fixture isn’t the main event at Twickenham this weekend. Toulouse versus La Rochelle is the heavyweight Champions Cup final match-up, but Tigers aren’t going to snub their nose at the chance of collecting the secondary trophy to endorse the past year’s progress under Borthwick whose no-nonsense root-and-branch revamp is similar to the tough-talking approach taken by Michael Cheika at misfiring Leinster all those years ago.

“When you are in the position that Leicester are in the last couple of years, the last three years, you want something to play for and some silverware,” reckoned Kay, delighted at the prospect of seeing Tigers involved in some finals rugby after an underwhelming series of campaigns, notably consecutive eleventh place Premiership finishes that were just one spot away from top-flight relegation.

“As Pat Lam said last year (when Bristol won the Challenge Cup), it’s an opportunity to test yourself in a final so that when you keep building and get to where you want to be you have got that experience so that is important, but rugby players are competitive beasts.

“It doesn’t matter what the competition is, when you get to a final you give it absolutely everything. Steve Borthwick will see this as just a stepping stone but it is a nice test for the boys and a big event – hopefully, there will be some even bigger events to come down the line for them.”

So what has Borthwick done to conjure some better results in his first head coaching role after years of assisting Japan, England and the Lions at Test level? “He has simplified everything quite a lot with absolute clarity on what he wants from the players. Everyone is doing exactly the same thing, knowing the Leicester way under Steve Borthwick.

“It’s not particularly complicated yet but it’s that foundation piece that most teams that go on and achieve something with any longevity have and then they build on top of that. You look at a Saracens or an Exeter Chiefs, there was a certain way they were playing at the beginning that was their identity. Everyone knew what their strength was and then they have gradually added to that as the years have gone by and become at times unplayable.

“That is probably his goal, to get four or five areas absolutely nailed on so that everyone is 100 per cent together on which makes you very difficult to play against and then add to those. That is when you start getting to the impossible-to-play-against territory.”

Has Kay seen enough to soothe the pain felt in recent years when Leicester diced with dreaded Premiership relegation? “That was very painful but what it has shown is that Leicester don’t have any god-given right to be there and the other thing is there were a lot of people that did lots of good but it just became almost self-fulfilling and a spiral down.

“It almost took hitting rock bottom to see the way back to where Leicester and Leicester fans feel they should be and that is why it has been so important that Steve Borthwick has come in with some fresh eyes and said, ‘Right, we are starting from absolute scratch’. One of the things that caused the spiral was people trying to hold onto the past a little bit.

“When you have had success and been in ten finals on the trot, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Right, we need to start from scratch and we might not win anything for a couple of years and we might not be in finals for a couple of years but we can lay the foundations’.

“It’s almost when you are getting to semi-finals and finals and not winning them it’s, ‘Well, we can’t be doing that much wrong, can we?’ But the results are probably the last thing that goes so it has been very chastising for all Leicester fans and anyone involved with Leicester but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

An important aspect in altering that atmosphere is how the revamp of the Tigers academy – something RugbyPass documented in a 2019 six-part series – is now paying fruit with talents emerging who have the potential to go on and enjoy prosperous long-term careers at Leicester. Previously, what was emerging just wasn’t up to it, reckoned Kay who has had a role on the club’s board since 2014.

One of the areas that wasn’t functioning for Leicester was the academy,” he admitted. “Even though they were winning competitions it wasn’t producing what an academy should, which is players coming into the senior squad and being long-term players for you that you have developed yourself. That was addressed four or five years ago and it has taken this long for the results of that to come through and you are now seeing local homegrown talent coming in and pressuring international players with over 100 caps.

“The really interesting thing now will be, and I think back to Harry Ellis ousting Austin Healey as the scrum-half, when do these players oust some guys like Dan Cole or Ben Youngs? So Jack van Poortvliet has been outstanding. Joe Heyes this season has really taken the next step up. There was some debate as to whether he would take that next step up but he has been fantastic and now Dan Cole must feel under huge pressure.

“But the star of the season has been Freddie Steward. He looks like a 50-cap veteran in his style of play, such a calm head on young shoulders that he has probably been the standout. But it’s hugely pleasing for anyone who has been involved with Leicester for a long time to see that homegrown talent coming in rather than going off and having to look abroad all the time to find someone to fill a hole left by someone else.”

  • BT Sport 1 will show Leicester Tigers vs Montpellier in the final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup live from Twickenham on Friday, May 21, from 7pm

 

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'We're going to meet up at Darren Garforth's house for a socially distanced pint': 20 years on from Leicester's breakthrough European title

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