Leicester will wear nine stars across the back of their shirts at Northampton this afternoon: one for each of the Tigers' record number of league titles. A wag at Franklin's Gardens, which will be packed out for this juiciest of Premiership derbies, says the stars will be useful as grips for cleaning their opponents out of the breakdown. After all, as the old song goes, won't it be "same old Leicester, always cheating"? "The statistics tell a different story," says George Chuter, the England hooker entering his 11th season as a Tiger. "We've got a reputation of being cheats but the stats show that last year we were the least penalised team in the league."
Number-crunchers Opta do not quite concur: Leicester, with 245 penalties conceded, were fourth-best behavers behind Newcastle, Sale and London Irish, though worse than that for breakdown offences – enough for the rest to routinely gnash their teeth at Tigers spoiling their ball. But perhaps the debate should be whether the champions are cleverer, not cleaner, than the competition.
Northampton won 26 matches last season and lost 10; Leicester won 22, drew two and lost 10. Saints, who are yet to win a league title, were knocked out in the semi-final. Leicester got their timing right, as they often do in the crucial battle after the tackle. The laws have changed – or the interpretations have been tweaked since February's now famous meeting of the clubs' gang of four, the RFU and the referees – but Chuter is sure Leicester will carry on as before.
"We pride ourselves on having a defence that can adapt and stifle a team legally," Chuter says. "It will be different because you have to have a different mindset regarding attacking the ball or putting numbers into a defensive ruck. But we're very disciplined in what we do and we conceded the fewest tries in the history of the Premiership last season. We've got good players who are sharp mentally and know what's expected, whether to go in and counter-ruck or join the defensive line."
Sometimes these quality players move on: this summer, 130 caps' worth were lost with Lewis Moody going to Bath, of all places, and Ben Kay to TV commentary. They haven't been given a second thought. Tigers got on with "integrating" new signings including the Maori No 8 Thomas Waldrom and Wasps lock George Skivington into the two changing rooms at the Oval Park training ground. One has natural light and accommodates 12 players; the other takes about 48.
Toby Flood has "snuck in" to the more desirable residence, apparently; well, he is the England fly-half. Chuter was on the summer tour as a replacement for Steve Thompson in both Tests in Australia while Northampton's Dylan Hartley was injured, and jovially called on Moody to "sit down!" during the captain's speech to the crowd after the 21-20 win in Sydney. And Chuter goes head to head with Hartley today; they and Thompson, now at Leeds, are in the senior squad; Bath's Lee Mears and Wasps' Rob Webber are with the Saxons.
As to the Tigers' perennial ability to plug the gaps in their squad, Chuter, who joined Leicester on New Year's Day 2001, says: "It's not tangible, as in being fast or being strong or athletic. Mainly it's mental toughness which brings the best out of you physically. We work hard at Leicester, we are intense, and the same can't be said for every other club in the Premiership.
"There have been world-class players, Flash Harries with reputations, who have been here for a year or two years and not found their feet. Other guys come here from nowhere, and suddenly they're internationals, because they've got that work ethic.
"Martin Johnson could have been the biggest ego in the world when he was captain of England and captain of Leicester; he could have been an arrogant pig but he's not. He's the most down-to-earth guy you'll meet. It's the same with other past players like Martin Corry, Neil Back, Graham Rowntree... they could have gone to another club as the highest paid player, driving a Ferrari, but they just want to be respected rugby players.
"I'm fairly sure Leicester are not the highest payers, but certainly for me it's not about the money. It's about winning and being successful. The club always comes first, it comes above any player, above any coach."