Leicester Tigers’ training base at Oadby is where they spill blood for the cause, where champion spirits are nurtured and where plans to topple opponents are hatched. Some of us speak from personal experience about the effect of the down-to-earth backdrop a few miles from city centre Welford Rd.
Many years ago their one-time player, coach, local legend, Graham Willars, asked me to rustle up a Rugby Writers’ XV to take on a Leicester Vets team, the Droglites, in order to open that training centre at Oadby. Willars assured me that it would be a friendly occasion with maybe a chance to mix-and-match the sides as, self-evidently, a bunch of hacks would be no match for a team containing several former England internationals such as Peter Wheeler, Les Cusworth, Dusty Hare and Paul Dodge as well as battle-scarred hard nuts such as Ian ‘Dosser’ Smith.
As it turned out there was no mix-and-matching, no gentle Sunday crowd appreciating the time given up by hard-working hacks to make the journey up to Leicester, just a baying mob of a couple of thousand and a Droglites side intent on putting on a show. It was not pretty. We did well to keep the score under a century which we managed by three points. We even lost the fight.
Leicester Tigers have had their up and downs over the last decade, tumbling from the mountain top scaled in the early years of the century when a presence at the business end of the Premiership season was a formality. Titles? Yeah, plenty of them. Dominance in the league? Yeah, a given. But then it all went a bit pear-shaped. And nobody could quite put their finger on why. That is, until Steve Borthwick arrived in late 2020 to right the recent wrongs with another Prem title duly arriving last season.
Borthwick is not a bright lights man. He was not a fancy player. And he is not a fancy coach. And, no, that is not to be damning him with faint praise – that is intended as a high compliment, a remark so as to highlight his ability to cut through all the waste and waffle and get to the heart of a matter. It is a rare and underrated skill. Borthwick has it – and so too does his successor, Richard Wigglesworth.
Leicester Tigers have thrived in this latter part of the season because they have gone back to being true to their roots, back to basics. It is, of course, fanciful and no more than a bit of fun to draw a line from the Rugby Writers’ day of woe almost 30 years ago but there is a similarity in there somewhere. Leicester don’t mess about when it comes to the scoreboard. You are either in front or you’re a loser. Wigglesworth himself made that very point earlier in the week when he shrugged off any praise as to his role in helping haul Leicester up from their mid-term doldrum following Borthwick’s departure to England in the wake of Eddie Jones’ dismissal and taking them to the semi-finals.
This Sale-Leicester vintage is of a remarkably similar hue. Both coaches, both teams, are chiselled from the same stone: grafting, unfussy, gritty and canny in equal measure.
“Can we take that as a success (our progress) ? Absolutely,” said Wigglesworth. “But is it a success losing a semi-final? Absolutely not. The club doesn’t do losing semi-finals.”
Not does any team coached by Alex Sanderson. As Wigglesworth knows only too well. Sanderson has as much Saracens’ DNA in his blood as does his opposite number in the coaching box at the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday.
This Sale-Leicester vintage is of a remarkably similar hue. Both coaches, both teams, are chiselled from the same stone: grafting, unfussy, gritty and canny in equal measure. It’s something England need to learn, that ability to keep it simple and to play hard-ball rugby.
It will be a bitter-sweet experience for Leicester supporters this weekend. Having rediscovered their identity under Borthwick and, latterly, under Wigglesworth, they will be only too aware that the management style put in place over the last three years is on the cusp of disintegrating completely. If only the RFU were as efficient in running their business at Twickenham as they are in plundering the ranks of a club for a new coaching group then the sport in England would be in a much happier place.
Borthwick and his right-hand man, Kevin Sinfield, left before Christmas. Wigglesworth is soon to join them as is fitness guru, Aled Waters and scrum coach, Tom Harrison. If it can be of any consolation to Tigers’ fans fearing for the future after such a wipe-out, consider the respective fates of Chelsea and Brighton after the Seagulls were shredded in almost identical fashion when manager Graham Potter left. If the foundations are solid then there is little danger of the edifice crumbling.
Leicester were in eighth place with little real prospect of making the semi-finals. Victory over Saracens following three league defeats set them on their way.
Leicester have a sound, well-packaged squad, one that came together so impressively when things looked less than promising earlier in the year. They were in eighth place with little real prospect of making the semi-finals. Victory over Saracens following three league defeats set them on their way. Five more wins – over London Irish, Bath, Gloucester, Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs – sent them soaring up the ladder to finish in third place behind Saracens and Sale Sharks.
From hereon in, anything is possible even if Tigers have a paltry record at the AJ Bell with their last win on the road coming in 2018. Even so, there is such a seam of valuable assets in the side, running through their nuggety pack where three players, hooker, Julian Montoya, lock, George Martin and No 8, Jasper Wiese, have made it into the season’s all-star Premiership line-up, on to Springbok fly-half, Handre Pollard and into the rear field where Freddie Steward, has proved himself to be among the best in the world.
There is little doubt that the league’s front-runners, Saracens and Sale Sharks, head into the weekend as favourites. Home advantage is their reward for their higher placings in the regular season. The play-off system is far from perfect but that argument is for another day. Leicester Tigers, along with Sarries’ opponents, Northampton Saints, deserve their showcase finale. Leicester in the play-offs was once as routine an occurrence as death and taxes. That Wigglesworth has managed to back up last season’s title success was far from expected, and for that he, and his players, deserve much credit.
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