Thursday, December 2News That Matters

CHRIS FOY: It’s time for Tigers to win back some of the Leicester limelight from the football team

Leicester has become a football city which also has a rugby team, but the Tigers have a chance this week to start reclaiming some of the local sporting spotlight.

Rewind a decade or so and it felt like there was a fair balance between the round-ball and oval-ball sides in that part of the East Midlands, in terms of public recognition.

But the rise of the Foxes and the global acclaim they have achieved by winning the Premier League and now the FA Cup coincided with harder times at Welford Road. There is now a pronounced imbalance. The footballers are the kingpins.

Leicester Tigers have the chance to recapture the imagination of the city towards rugby again

Leicester Tigers have the chance to recapture the imagination of the city towards rugby again

Leicester Tigers have the chance to recapture the imagination of the city towards rugby again

The success of Leicester's football side has coincided with hard times for the rugby team

The success of Leicester's football side has coincided with hard times for the rugby team

The success of Leicester’s football side has coincided with hard times for the rugby team

It is a while since the Tigers bestrode their game.

They last won the Premiership in 2013 and their back-to-back European triumphs – 2001 and 2002 – are fading into the distant mists of time.

But on Friday they can earn the continent’s secondary prize, the Challenge Cup. A trip to Twickenham will re-engage thousands of Leicester supporters and victory over Montpellier would be a pointer that Steve Borthwick’s salvage operation is on track.

Saturday’s home win over Harlequins was encouraging evidence in itself, as the title-chasing visitors were emphatically out-muscled. If Leicester are to be a force again, they must have a pack capable of such thunderous dominance.

That is how it always was at Welford Road – the fortress they are trying to rebuild (as well as rebrand) after it had been reduced to rubble by years of decline.

The new Leicester era is epitomised by Ellis Genge. If there had been a crowd for the Quins game, they would have delivered loud, proud tributes to the talisman in their front row. He scored two tries, raged at the injustice of a yellow card and was a weapon of mass destruction.

When Genge was persuaded to sign a new contract until the end of next season, it felt like a crucial bit of business and that he could become a focal point for Leicester’s intended resurgence.

Ellis Genge epitomises what is a new era at Welford Road with his talismanic role

Ellis Genge epitomises what is a new era at Welford Road with his talismanic role

Ellis Genge epitomises what is a new era at Welford Road with his talismanic role

It is turning out that way. The emergence of young forwards such as George Martin, Joe Heyes and Tommy Reffell has added momentum. With South African recruits adding clout, the Tigers are rediscovering the DNA from their glory days, armed with a formidable set-piece platform.

If they are to scale the heights again, there must be an emphasis on talent production, which was such a staple of Leicester’s best years, before the torrent became barely a trickle.

Full-back Freddie Steward has become a beacon of the new generation in his breakthrough season, while another of the Norfolk contingent, scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, is also being tipped for fast-tracking to the England squad. The need for pedigree academy graduates is even more pronounced now that the salary-cap limit is being cut.

Events have conspired to aid Leicester’s quest to reclaim lost status in their city and their sport.

Saracens’ points deductions for past cap offences meant the Tigers avoided relegation last year. And Covid disruption forced the club to restructure, with the upshot that there is now a far more streamlined, better-run organisation and hierarchy, where before it was disjointed, bloated and ineffective.

Having dropped to 11th place in the last two years, Leicester are now sixth and preparing for a European final.

Leicester has become more of a football city which also has a rugby team in the last decade

Leicester has become more of a football city which also has a rugby team in the last decade

Leicester has become more of a football city which also has a rugby team in the last decade

They are on the way up again. The overhaul overseen by Borthwick has been brutal but it is starting to pay off.

Unfortunately, a positive story cannot be told in full while the Tigers adopt a secretive, low profile. They have grown wary of media interest, preferring to circle the wagons and stay out of sight.

If they are to win back some of those people who have been wooed by the Foxes and their romantic feats, they have to be successful – and accessible.

PITAU AND CO CAN BE CROWD PLEASERS

Monday night’s two Premiership games are highly significant, not least because they mark the return of spectators in very limited numbers.

There will be 3,138 fans at Ashton Gate as league leaders Bristol host Gloucester. Pat Lam’s Bears are hoping to take another step towards securing a home semi-final and they will unleash an unchanged back line featuring both of their Polynesian Galacticos, Charles Piutau and Semi Radradra. Up front, England prop Kyle Sinckler will be aiming to pick up where he left off against Bath by channelling the angst felt by his Lions omission again.

At Kingston Park, a crowd of 1,750 will see Newcastle take on Northampton who need to win to stay in the hunt for the play-offs but are without Dan Biggar, who is still recovering from a head injury.

Charles Piutau and his other Bristol Bears will play in front of 3,138 spectators at Ashton Gate

Charles Piutau and his other Bristol Bears will play in front of 3,138 spectators at Ashton Gate

Charles Piutau and his other Bristol Bears will play in front of 3,138 spectators at Ashton Gate

A SOULLESS LIONS TOUR WAS AVOIDABLE

How sad it will be to witness a soulless Lions tour in empty arenas when it didn’t have to be this way. Unless the Covid situation in South Africa improves markedly – and it is actually likely to worsen – all fixtures will be played behind closed doors.

If the event does go ahead, it will be a hollow imitation of the real thing. No Red Army invasion. No host-nation hostility. No colour and noise, vibrancy or partisan fervour. Just echoes around vast, unpopulated stands.

Yet, this travesty was avoidable. It is a disgrace that postponement until the summer of 2022 was not considered. The logical scenario wasn’t even formally debated within Lions board meetings, to avoid accountability.

Self-interest killed off any chance of a sensible delay, with the RFU and the Irish union regarded as the chief culprits. Switching matches to the UK was another option, but it was ruled out because the home unions would not accept a perceived financial risk. At every turn, a grand concept has been dragged down by narrow-mindedness and petty politics. Shame on those who couldn’t bring themselves to act for the greater good.

The soulless Lions Tour without the usual British and Irish red wall was entirely avoidable

The soulless Lions Tour without the usual British and Irish red wall was entirely avoidable

The soulless Lions Tour without the usual British and Irish red wall was entirely avoidable

THE LAST WORD 

George Ford made a powerful statement at Welford Road on Saturday about his refusal to be run over by the Marcus Smith bandwagon.

Leicester’s fly-half has played 77 Tests for England and he will be well aware of a clamour for his rookie rival from Harlequins to be handed that No 10 shirt.

So Ford’s imperious performance in a fascinating head-to-head with Smith in front of Eddie Jones was telling.

A clever delayed pass dragged his opposite number out of position to set up Matt Scott’s opening try for the Tigers and he continued to dictate the game shrewdly while operating close to the Quins defensive line.

George Ford's display at Welford Road on Saturday showed defiance at the Marcus Smith hype

George Ford's display at Welford Road on Saturday showed defiance at the Marcus Smith hype

George Ford’s display at Welford Road on Saturday showed defiance at the Marcus Smith hype

There was one astonishing, laser-guided touch-finder in the first half, a few dangerous spiral bombs, composure and nimble footwork under pressure and leadership, too.

This is part of the dilemma for Jones. Ford is his obvious stand-in captain for the Tests against the USA and Canada, with Owen Farrell away on the Lions tour.

Smith deserves to earn his first caps this summer and is a prodigious talent, but Ford – still only 28 – has shown he will not meekly step aside to let the younger man usurp him.