It has been nearly 20 years since Leon Lloyd etched his name into Leicester’s European folklore on a roasting-hot day in May, 2001. After 79 minutes of an enthralling, nail-biting Heineken Cup final at the Parc des Princes, a star-studded Stade Français side led the Tigers 30-27. It looked to be game over.
But then came a moment of magic from Austin Healey, scything through Stade’s defence before releasing Lloyd, who had already scored one try in the first half, on his outside. Lloyd sprinted for the corner and managed to get the ball down despite the attentions of Christophe Dominici. With Tim Stimpson nailing the conversion from wide on the right, Leicester prevailed 34-30, claiming their first European trophy after falling at the final hurdle against Brive four years earlier.
The mists of time haven’t fogged Lloyd’s memories of that momentous day in Paris, although he admits it does seem crazy that it was almost two decades ago.
“It’s absolutely still fresh in my memory but it’s a bit depressing it was 20 years ago,” said Lloyd. “On a good day, when I’m looking outside and it’s sunny, I think if I got the opportunity again I could still do it.
I don’t remember Austin’s break but that’s all I’ve heard about since, mainly from Austin.
“The reality is very different. I can’t even come down the stairs now without feeling a creak in my back, so it does feel strange. I don’t feel 20 years older but the calendar doesn’t lie unfortunately.
“I don’t remember Austin’s break but that’s all I’ve heard about since, mainly from Austin. What I do remember is playing in the Heineken Cup final a few years before, when we lost to Brive [28-9]. I was only 17 or 18 then and we got absolutely hammered, so this was different as I was a bit more experienced.
“I had more of my mates with me because in 1996, when I broke through into the team, I was the only youngster. It was a team full of the old amateurs as the game turned pro, whereas in 2001 we had guys like Andy Goode, Geordan Murphy, Lewis Moody, Paul Gustard – younger guys in my age range. We had the superstars as well like Johnno [Martin Johnson], Backy [Neil Back] and Austin, but Stade also had an amazing team.
“It was a red-hot day and they were definitely favourites, playing in their own backyard, their home ground was only about 100 yards away. We were on fire that year because we’d already won the league by that point and we’d won the play-off final, beating Bath, so we already had two trophies in the bag. But this game was massive for us because a lot of the guys had lost in that 1997 final, so we wanted to put right that wrong.
“Without a shadow of doubt, it was the best moment of my career. Any athlete, your aim is to play at the highest level you can, and that’s for your country. Thankfully I did play for England [Lloyd won five caps] but, for me, that match was the best.
“I scored two tries in that game and my dream as a kid was to score goals in FA Cup finals, so the fact I was able to do that in rugby will live on with me.
The fact that the odds were stacked against us, the fact Stade were a superstar side, the fact we were never in the lead until the last minute of the game, that’s what made it so memorable for both the fans and the players.”
“We won the Heineken Cup the following year, beating Munster in the final and I was injured for it, but the guys who played in that one and also in the 2003 World Cup final – seven of the guys won the World Cup – still rate that Paris final as one of the best games they’ve ever played in.
“The fact that the odds were stacked against us, the fact Stade were a superstar side, the fact we were never in the lead until the last minute of the game, that’s what made it so memorable for both the fans and the players.”
It has not been easy for those fans and former players to watch Leicester’s fall from grace. The Tigers have gone from being perennial title contenders to regular relegation battlers. But although the current side are a long way from scaling the heights of Lloyd’s Leicester, the former wing/outside-centre believes that head coach Steve Borthwick is building a solid base camp for them to climb back up the mountain.
“It’s like being at the top of the mountain, the air’s thin, you’re not supposed to stay there very long,” said Lloyd. “With Leicester, we were at the top of the mountain for a long time. We had four, five, six years where we were winning things and you can get complacent.
“But to all of a sudden not qualify for finals or for Europe, that is uncharted territory for the Tigers. I know how proud the club are, they’ll be hurting. It’s just a shame that a club who had been so consistent over such a long period of time have been in a relegation battle for the past two or three seasons.
“This year, though, they seem to be more consistent, playing attacking rugby and winning a few games. I don’t know Steve Borthwick’s coaching style but they definitely seem a better side than they have been for the past few seasons.”
At the forefront of that revival has been a raft of youngsters, such as George Martin (who made his England debut off the bench against Ireland in the Six Nations), Tommy Reffell, Jack van Poortvliet and Freddie Steward. Lloyd feels that mixture of grizzled veterans and young talent could prove to be potent and captures the essence of what made Leicester great.
“During our successful period, Leicester were never ones for mass signings, like Saracens used to do in buying a world-class side,” said Lloyd. “Leicester had a lot of homegrown, local, Midlands-based players with a sprinkling of international superstars, the likes of Joel Stransky, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Pat Howard, Rod Kafer, Daryl Gibson.
I got my chance as a 17-year-old at Leicester, so I’m a massive believer in that if you’re good enough, you should be given a chance. That may be why we’re seeing a resurgence at the Tigers.
“We used to invest in the odd individual player who met the culture that Leicester had at the time rather than go out and buy a load of Argentinian or French players or try to buy a team.
“I got my chance as a 17-year-old at Leicester, so I’m a massive believer in that if you’re good enough, you should be given a chance. If the younger guys are playing better than the older ones, even if they are more senior and have more caps, then they should be picked. That may be why we’re seeing a resurgence at the Tigers.”
Even so, it has been four years since Leicester won any silverware (the 2017 Anglo-Welsh Cup), eight years since they won the Premiership and 12 years since they were in a European final. While the Premiership title is long gone, the Tigers do still have a chance of claiming a crown, the Challenge Cup. On Friday, they face Ulster in the semi-finals at Welford Road and while the Challenge Cup doesn’t carry the kudos of the Champions Cup, beggars can’t be choosers. Lloyd will take what he can get.
“I don’t want to sound snobby or arrogant but, at the time I was playing, if we were not in or around the semi-finals and final of the Champions Cup, then that was not a great season for us. One year we were in the Challenge Cup and, even though we won the Premiership, that was a bad year,” said the 43-year-old.
“But then is then and now is now. The game’s changed. The gulf between the two European competitions is shorter than it was when I was playing. Now you’ve got some big-name teams in the Challenge Cup, so just for the players to get used to playing in semi-finals and, hopefully, finals is a huge step in the right direction for Leicester.
“If Leicester can win a trophy – any trophy – then it’s huge after where they’ve been over the past few years.”
Not that Lloyd is counting his chickens just yet, as Ulster will be formidable foes and have often been a thorn in the Tigers’ paw. If 2001 provided the highlight of Lloyd’s career, then 2004 – and Ulster in Belfast – was the nadir.
The good thing for this Leicester team is that they won’t have the memories of the hidings Ulster gave us. For them, it will be just a match, a semi-final and, with the momentum they’ve got, I definitely feel they have a strong chance of pulling it off.
“I remember losing to Ulster 33-0, which was one of the worst days of my Leicester career,” said Lloyd, who made 266 appearances for the Tigers between 1996 and 2007. “Ulster have been a real bogey team for Leicester, they’ve dished out some real hidings to us.
“People laugh and say, ‘Who was in the team?’ And I say, ‘Everyone!’ We had all our superstars in the team, it was a full-strength side.
“But the good thing for this Leicester team now is that they won’t have the memories of the hidings Ulster gave us. For them, it will be just a match, a semi-final and, with the momentum they’ve got, I definitely feel they have a really strong chance of pulling it off.”
More stories from Andrew Elliott
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