Safe to say, this has been the longest breakthrough season for all young players in England. When Tommy Reffell stood at the campaign starting line 13 months ago, the development grade back row’s ambition was to grab a few Premiership Cup outings while the Leicester big-hitters were all away at the World Cup in Japan.
He never fathomed he would blossom so quickly, that he would be signing off on the 2019/20 season with a senior contract inked, a breakthrough player of the year award won and a 13th Premiership appearance this Sunday coming hot on the heels of a rousing European show of semi-final breakdown defiance at Toulon.
Leicester’s results all the while might not inspire much confidence – the Tigers have lost seven of their nine post-lockdown outings under new boss Steve Borthwick, and some of the porous collective defence has been downright horrible.
But in the likes of Reffell, there are locally nurtured green shoots that offer some promise of better days ahead, happier outcomes that are badly needed given the sobering realisation that but for Saracens’ automatic relegation for breaching the salary cap it would be Leicester who would be facing an ignominious demotion to the Championship.
The pressure is on then to make genuine improvements in time for 2020/21 and while there was an extremely busy revolving door at the club during the pandemic-enforced layoff, one thing Leicester have banked the house on is a renaissance in their famed academy.
It used deliver talent on tap to the club who were ahead of the curve nationally in England when it was founded in 2000. So many first-team success stories owed their development to the machinations of their Oval Park laboratory before something went awry.
It’s back in sync now, Leicester winning a hat-trick of Premiership Academy League titles, two outright and a share of the honours at the top of this year following a tied final with London Irish.
RugbyPass followed the second of those triumphs every step of the way in a compelling six-part, fly on the wall documentary series that rounded off with an Allianz Park showpiece win over Louis Rees-Zammit’s Gloucester in February 2019 and the optimism it ignited was clearly evident in senior skipper Tom Youngs when he spoke to the camera in the aftermath.
“I hope I get the opportunity to play with these guys because there are some really good guys coming through,” he enthused. “The guys who come through the academy are the backbone of Leicester and have been for years and we have probably lacked that in recent years. Hopefully, as senior guys, we can teach them a thing or two and they can take the future of the club on.”
Reffell is like a sponge in the company of Youngs and co. The Class of 2019 wasn’t his particular academy group – the 21-year-old had graduated some years previously at Tigers after initially being on the radar of Ospreys’ wider academy in his native Wales.
But it can only be encouraging for the Leicester faithful that Borthwick isn’t shy of giving youth its fling and current development squad names such as Freddie Steward, Thom Smith, Jack van Poortvliet and Archie Vanes have all figured in recent months, mucking in with newish senior squad members like Reffell, Joe Heyes and Jordan Olowofela to stake a selection claim.
Reffell is enjoying the fresh Borthwick hard edge. “On a one-to-one basis he has come in and warned me to up my physicality, that sort of thing, just try to make me better and be the best Premiership player I can be,” explained the Welshman, happy that his hunch in sticking with Tigers this past summer is bringing first-team rewards after he ignored the regional flirtations that enticed recent academy graduate Sam Costelow across the Severn to Scarlets.
“I’m happy at Leicester. I’m enjoying my time. If I’m lucky enough to have anything to come my way like that (at international level), well then that’s when I’ll talk about it,” he added, referencing the recent media speculation about supposed England interest even though he has proudly skippered Wales at age-grade level.
“Look, I just want people to know that every time I go out in the Tigers shirt that all of us are giving it our all. It’s not just the young players in the team. It’s a privilege for the squad to go out and play but yeah, from a young players’ point of view, it’s about building consistency in our performances and having the belief that we are good enough to play at that level.
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Steve Borthwick has named the matchday squad to represent the club in the final fixture of the 2?0?1?9? / 2?0? season against @Harlequins on Sunday at Welford Road.
— Leícester Tígers (@LeicesterTigers) October 3, 2020
“Freddie is a few years younger than me so he is doing remarkably well at the moment. He has come in, has got an old head on young shoulders. We do talk a lot as young players. We always give each other advice. Sometimes you see these players and they are not young players anymore because they are confident in their abilities and are starting to become emerging leaders as well.”
Leicester rookie Reffell will glimpse the other end of that leadership spectrum up close on Sunday at Welford Road, former England skipper Chris Robshaw set to make his 300th and last appearance for Harlequins before topping up the pension Stateside with a switch to San Diego.
If the promising Tigers back row can go on and enjoy that type of longevity he will surely have a career to savour, but Reffell isn’t thinking like that just now, his concentration focused on taking further baby steps in the hope of convincing Borthwick he really does have what it takes to become a feared Neil Back-like menace at the Leicester breakdown.
“We rate Chris Robshaw as a hell of a player for Harlequins and England. It’s his last match and he’s going to be really up for it. They will want to send him off with a nice performance but we have to concentrate on ourselves. We’re at the start of a journey as a team ourselves, we can’t really be concentrating on the other teams too much.
“The start of the season seems so long ago now. To be honest, I was just looking forward to playing in the Premiership Cup and then just showing what I can do around the training ground. I feel like I have made some good steady progress and I want to keep pushing that on now, It’s been a massive learning curve, especially with the back-to-back games. You have to learn faster than you would normally, two or three days to prepare for a team.
“It’s just building that consistency and backing it up. This is my first proper season playing Premiership rugby and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m enjoying the level of physicality you’re asked to bring each week and I’ve definitely grown as an individual. I’ve got to really stay motivated now and when the season is over, look back and reflect on how it has gone and take all the learnings into the next one. It’s nice to have that breakdown (poaching) come back into the game.
“There are still a lot of big men playing in the Premiership, so that (physicality) hasn’t gone away at all, but it’s just about working on that breakdown, the speed into the breakdown, the accuracy in the breakdown, all of that stuff. The laws have come in to particularly look after the jackaler. If you can get on the ball with speed and accuracy you’re more likely to earn a turnover for your team.”
Earn a turnover and earn kudos from Borthwick from on high. For sure it has been a breakthrough season to remember for Reffell.
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