Not since 2011 have Leicester Tigers finished a season at the top of the Premiership table, but four games into the new campaign that is where they are currently sitting pretty.
Having been mainstays in the coveted top four places for more than a decade, the Tigers slipped out in 2018 and haven’t been back since. Two 11th-placed finishes in a row represented chronic underachievement for a Leicester side famed for their history and intimidating quality. Something had to change: enter Steve Borthwick.
Borthwick feels as Leicester as you can get for a player who never actually had the honour of wearing the club’s stripes. The former second row at Bath, Saracens and England has made some key decisions inside his first 18 months that have given rise to hopes in the Midlands of a new era of Tigers dominance.
A total of 37 players left the club during pre-season prior to the 2020-21 campaign, while 25 joined the club; by far the biggest overhaul in the Premiership that summer.
In came steady heads including England’s Richard Wigglesworth, Argentina captain Julian Montoya and Springbok Jasper Wiese.
This signified to Leicester fans that the club were going back to their roots, and roaring into a new era, with set piece specialists and carriers.
The Tigers managed a sixth-placed finish in Borthwick’s first season, a monumental improvement on the previous two campaigns. But the head coach wasn’t done in ditching the team of old and really making this squad his own.
Prior to this season, having exposed a group of academy players to Premiership rugby last time out, Borthwick signed or promoted 19 players in the off-season and shipped out another 25, many of whom went on loan.
The effect has been revolutionary, and the squad now resembles a Tigers side of old. Ellis Genge, nicknamed the Baby Rhino, was appointed captain and his passion for the game has injected this Tigers group with the feel of Martin Corry’s Premiership-winning side of 2007.
BACK TO BASICS
Coaches will tell you that any good game is built on a solid set piece of scrummaging and line out, and Borthwick, a former lock, wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Tigers have visibly rediscovered their aggressive forward playbook, often looking to maul, drive and carry rather than pass, kick and chase.
The opening four games of this season – Exeter and Saracens at home and London Irish and Gloucester away – have seen Leicester look to dominate the collisions and force their opponents backwards.
That’s in stark contract to their two seasons towards the bottom end of the table, in which it was clear that the Tigers were looking to play an expansive style of rugby.
Now they have gone back to basics they have also returned to winning ways, with some notable scalps already.
APPEASE THE TERRACES
Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium hasn’t always had such a drawn-out name. The terraces of Liecester’s home ground have long been a staple of English rugby, stretching back to before the dawn of professionalism a quarter of a century ago.
Covid-19 aside, the concrete steps of the south terrace, with the wooden benches above, have dwindled in their occupancy.
Borthwick’s unofficial task is to bring supporters, and by extension revenue, back to the biggest purpose-built club rugby ground in the country.
The fans have demanded a return to the style of play that won them trophies, and their head coach is beginning to do that. A hard-fought game against Saracens last month was won with a penalty try when the clock was in the red: an old school Leicester score.
And while one game doesn’t encourage the masses to return, it was a start. Should the Tigers continue in their upward trajectory, those terraces will be bouncing soon enough, and the league will be better for it.
Four wins from four have lifted them to the top of the table, and that’s something fans haven’t been able to say for a long time. Leicester have become a force again, in the mould of their former glory sides.
They may not be the finished product, but what they have built in just 18 months has laid down a marker to the other sides in the Premiership. Write off the Tigers at your peril.