Leicester may not be in the running for the play-offs but players at a club that in the past seven years has gone from dominating the Premiership to not being bottom of the table only thanks to Saracens’ disgrace have spent the last few months running like never before.
The Tigers came out of lockdown under new management, with Steve Borthwick taking over as head coach after four years with England and Aled Walters, a much-travelled Welshman who was part of South Africa’s management team when they won the World Cup last year, in charge of fitness.
Borthwick saw at first hand the influence of Walters when the Springboks defeated England in the final in Yokohama. He wasted no time in contacting him after being appointed to transform a club that made the play-offs for 13 seasons from 2004-05 but that have spent the past two seasons scrabbling around in the nether reaches.
“Everyone here has the drive to get this club back to where it belongs, at the top,” says Walters, who took over as Leicester’s head of physical performance in July after stints with the Scarlets, Taranaki, the Brumbies and Munster, as well as the Springboks. “That involves hard work and we have been aggressive in pushing that.”
Walters was released early from his contract with South Africa because he wanted to be closer to home when Covid-19 was deemed a pandemic. Borthwick was quickly in touch and a man described by the South Africa centre Jesse Kriel as “one of or if not the best in the business” has made an immediate impact on the Tigers’ squad.
“We have done some running,” says the Leicester captain, Tom Youngs, a player who has sampled the highs and lows at Welford Road. “You do not mind doing very hard sessions as long as you can see that they are heading towards something and Aled has adapted his work to the way Steve wants us to play.
“You are seeing that on the field. One of the things Aled emphasises is the repeatability of high-intensity work and so training has become way harder than a game. It means that when you get to the hour-mark, you are comfortable, focused on the job in hand and talking to each other rather than being worried about breathing in and out. I can now see us going somewhere, even if it will be by small steps at first, because the environment is so enjoyable.”
With relegation settled, Borthwick can use the final six rounds of the season, starting against Gloucester at Kingsholm on Sunday, where he has selected a largely reserve side, to help assess his squad before the new campaign starts in November. But the midweek victory over London Irish, his first in charge, showed both the ground they have to make up and the potential within the squad.
“I would not have come here unless I saw that there was a genuine opportunity to be successful,” says Walters. “Steve was a massive reason I joined because of his reputation as a player and the impact he had as a coach with Japan and England.
“You can see already that we are moving in the right direction and we are developing at the rate I expected. When I went to South Africa, the team, like Leicester, had been underperforming, but what you could see straight away was that there was a spine and an identity.
“When you have to create an identity, it is a totally different challenge. It was clear in South Africa where you could get an improvement. It is not the same at Leicester, but similar. We want to restore the best traditions of the club and get the old gnarliness back.”
Winning on the road would be a start. Leicester have not done so in the league this campaign and managed it only twice last season, with one of the victories coming at Twickenham after Northampton gave up home advantage. They would be bottom but for Saracens being docked 105 points for serial salary cap breaches.
“It is about unrelenting workrate and honesty,” says Walters. “We are not blasting the players for the sake of it but fitting everything to the game plan. We might not get success immediately, but the quality is here – and the desire.”