Leicester has become a football city that also has a rugby team, but the Tigers have the chance this week to reclaim some of the local sports spotlight.
Rewind a decade or so and it felt like there was a fair balance between the round ball and the oval ball in that part of the East Midlands, in terms of public recognition.
But the rise of the Foxes and the global fame they have achieved by winning the Premier League and now the FA Cup has coincided with more difficult times at Welford Road. There is now a pronounced imbalance. The footballers are the kingpins.
Leicester Tigers will have the chance to re-energize the city’s imagination towards rugby
The success of the Leicester football team coincided with difficult times for the rugby team
It’s been a while since the tigers fought their game.
They last won the Premiership in 2013, and their back-to-back European triumphs – 2001 and 2002 – are fading into the distant haze of time.
But on Friday they can win the continent’s secondary prize, the Challenge Cup. A trip to Twickenham will re-engage thousands of Leicester supporters and the win over Montpellier would indicate that Steve Borthwick’s salvage operation is on track.
Saturday’s home win at Harlequins was encouraging evidence in itself, as the title-chasing visitors were emphatically too muscular. If Leicester is to be a force again, they must have a pack capable of such resounding dominance.
That’s how it always was on Welford Road – the fort they are trying to rebuild (and rebrand) after it fell to ruins from years of decay.
The new Leicester era is epitomized by Ellis Genge. Had there been a crowd for the Quins game, they would have paid loud, proud tribute to the talisman in their front row. He scored two tries, raged over 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 piece of business and that he could become a focal point for Leicester’s envisioned resurgence.
Ellis Genge embodies what is a new era on Welford Road with his talisman scroll
It turns out like this. The rise of young forwards such as George Martin, Joe Heyes and Tommy Reffell has given an extra boost. With South African recruits making an impact, the Tigers are rediscovering the DNA of their heyday, armed with a formidable platform.
If they want to climb the heights again, the emphasis must be on talent production, which was such a staple in Leicester’s best years, before the deluge became hardly a trickle.
Full-back Freddie Steward has become a new-generation beacon in his breakout season, while another slice 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 greater now that the salary limit is being lowered.
Events have conspired to help Leicester reclaim lost status in their city and their sport.
Saracens’ points deduction for past cap offenses meant the Tigers avoided relegation last year. And Covid’s disruption forced the club to restructure, with the result that there is now a much more streamlined, better managed organization and hierarchy where it was previously disjointed, bloated and ineffective.
Slipping to 11th place in the past two years, Leicester is now in sixth place and preparing for a European final.
Leicester has become more of a football city that also has a rugby team for the past decade
They are on their way again. The overhaul supervised by Borthwick has been relentless, but is starting to pay off.
Unfortunately, a positive story cannot be fully told while the Tigers adopt a secretive, unobtrusive profile. They have become wary of media attention, preferring to circle the wagons and stay out of sight.
If they want to reclaim some of those people provoked 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 very important, not least because they mark the return of spectators in very limited numbers.
There will be 3,138 fans at Ashton Gate as league-leader Bristol hosts Gloucester. Pat Lam’s Bears hope to take another step towards a home semi-final and they will unleash an unchanged back line with both of their Polynesian Galacticos, Charles Piutau and Semi Radradra. Up front, English propeller Kyle Sinckler will try to pick up where he left off against Bath by re-channeling fears of his Lions default.
At Kingston Park, a crowd of 1,750 Newcastle will take on Northampton, who must win to stay in the play-off chase, but without Dan Biggar, who is still recovering from a head injury.
Charles Piutau and his other Bristol Bears play in front of 3,138 spectators in Ashton Gate
A SOUL LION TOUR WAS AVOIDED
How sad it will be to witness a soulless Lions tour in empty arenas when it didn’t have to be. Unless the Covid situation in South Africa improves significantly – and is likely to get worse – all games will be played behind closed doors.
If the event does take place, it will be a hollow imitation of the real thing. Not an invasion from the Red Army. No hostility from the host country. No color and sound, liveliness or partial zeal. Just echo around sprawling, unpopulated stands.
Yet this travesty could be avoided. It is a shame that a postponement until the summer of 2022 has not been considered. The logical scenario was not even formally discussed in Lions board meetings, to avoid accountability.
Self-interest has killed any chance of a sensible slowdown, with the RFU and the Irish union being seen as the main culprits. Switching to the UK was another option, but it was ruled out as the home unions would not accept an alleged financial risk. Every time a great concept is put 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 walls was completely avoidable
THE LAST WORD
George Ford made a bold statement on Welford Road on Saturday about his refusal to be run over by the Marcus Smith cart.
Leicester’s fly-half has played 77 Tests for England and he will be well aware of a clamor for his rookie rival Harlequins to get that No. 10 shirt.
So Ford’s imperious performance in a fascinating showdown with Smith for Eddie Jones was telling.
A clever delayed pass dragged his opposite number out of position to set up Matt Scott’s opening attempt for the Tigers and he continued to cleverly dictate play while operating close to the Quins defense line.
George Ford’s showing on Welford Road on Saturday showed defiance amid the Marcus Smith hype
There was one amazing laser-guided touch finder in the first half, a pair of dangerous spiral bombs, composure and nimble footwork under pressure and also under guidance.
This is part of the dilemma for Jones. Ford is his clear deputy captain for the Tests against the US and Canada, with Owen Farrell away on the Lions tour.
Deserving of earning his first caps this summer, Smith is a wonderful talent, but Ford – still only 28 – has shown that he won’t meekly step aside to let the younger man take over.