Friday 23 February 2018

Warrior ethos at Tigers' core

Leo Cullen (L) embraces George Chuter after beating Munster in Limerick in 2007
Leo Cullen (L) embraces George Chuter after beating Munster in Limerick in 2007
Martin Johnson celebrates after defeating Leinster in the 2005 quarter-final
Geordan Murphy with the Heineken Cup after spoiling Munster's hopes in 2002
David Kelly

David Kelly

There are many illuminating stories in Austin Healey's autobiography.

Most of them are, naturally enough, about how great Austin Healey is. But if there was anything Healey loved more than himself, it was the Leicester Tigers.

"The team bus was the real testing ground for us,'' Healey wrote in the appropriately titled 'Me And My Mouth'.

"Every week World War III would erupt in the battle for the back seats, which in those days were habitually occupied by Martin Johnson, Richard Cockerill, Darren Garforth and Graham Rowntree.

"A couple of challengers would make their way to the back and try to kick them out and end up getting battered with their clothes ripped off and chucked out of the skylight.

"Dean Richards regularly tried to take the back seat and, more often than not, failed to do so. This was when we were by a long chalk the most successful rugby club in Britain.


"I suppose our soccer parallels were with Manchester United and I love the idea of Alex Ferguson having seven shades kicked out of him by Beckham, Scholes and Giggs on the way back from beating Arsenal. Somehow I doubt it ever happened."

The parallels with English soccer's most famous club side are perhaps flawed, given the vast disparity in incomes earned by the respective players and the little matter of a £750m debt; Leicester's turnover (£19.5m) palls compared to United's £300m.

But in terms of success, the comparison is valid. In the 15 years of professionalism, Leicester have annexed 11 trophies. Their will to win is as evident in their intimidating Welford Road home as it is on the training ground.

And they can export the characteristics that make them thrive in their coruscating crucible; they remain the only team to have defeated Munster in the Heineken Cup at Thomond Park; they also saw off Leinster in Lansdowne Road at this quarter-final stage of the competition six years ago.

"It's probably indefinable in many ways," explains Leicester hooker George Chuter, when asked to explain what makes the Tigers tick. "It's just a basic approach to the game and being a rugby player, without doing anything spectacularly different.

"There's no secret formula, no frills. The coaches have an attention to detail, the players have a work ethic and these aspects aren't necessarily better than anywhere else, they just work especially well for us."

When Geordan Murphy arrived at the club as a triallist in 1997, he lived with Johnson's family and when he pitched up for his first day of training, he soon realised that the club train as one -- internationals alongside trial players.

When there was a drill involving a move set to be used by the senior players, Murphy asked someone if he could manage a 20-metre pass off his wrong hand. He grimaced when he realised it was Craig Joiner, the Scottish international, to whom he was condescending.

Cue painful initiation process. Fourteen years on, Murphy is a legend within the club. The wheel keeps turning.

"Someone new comes into the club now," says chief executive Peter Wheeler, "and even though Geordan is a world-class player, the new guy just sees flesh and blood and thinks 'I can be like him'."

Formed in 1880, Leicester were already in Welford Road and sporting their traditional scarlet, green and white jerseys a decade later. After a regular challenge game fell through in 1908, the club invited the Barbarians to fill the gap.

The rest is record-breaking history. Leicester were always ahead of the pack; for example, they were the first club side to undertake an overseas tour.

The annual Barbarians fixture survived until professionalism's arrival in the mid-90s; Leicester's remarkable strength ensure that they would be one of the few English sides capable of coping in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Accord.

The club had introduced a season-ticket policy merely to satisfy the annual demand for tickets to their festive Barbarians challenge; hence, when the financial floodgates opened, the club already had 14,000 members and cash in hand.

They converted to a PLC, hiked season ticket prices and signed the best players not already snapped up by the short-lived sugar daddies at Richmond, Saracens and elsewhere.

Since then, they have never failed to make the top six in the English Premiership and have appeared in every Heineken Cup campaign (barring the 1998-99 boycott). Their strength is in unity.

Wheeler, a former hooker, is a driven chief executive; Peter Tom, a former lock, is a benign chairman, Richard Cockerill, a once fiery hooker, is now the coach.

Outsiders are welcome but those who don't buy into the club's ethos -- Marcelo Loffreda, Tom Varndell -- are quickly ushered from the premises.

"The club has a tremendous history and tradition too which is inescapable," adds Chuter. "It's all around us, guys on the board are some of our greatest players, the coaches are normally ex-players of distinction.

"You can't escape as a player that expectation, not just winning trophies but being competitive, showing pride in your jersey. It's part and parcel of signing your jersey.

"If you don't buy into that you get turfed out of it pretty sharpish and I've seen that happen. There's no secret to it but it's been ingrained here for years and will continue for many years to come."

It's a cross between a workman's club and a secret society. Nobody is bigger than Leicester; everyone is equal.

Paul Ackford wrote once of a sponsor's lunch when someone was asked what Healey was like.

"He's a little sh*t," came the reply. "But he's our little sh*t."

That's Leicester. Difficult to savour for outsiders but one thing is certain: the ingredients combine to taste like victory.

Irish Independent

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