How the Tigers earn their stripes

With the Heineken Cup and Premiership title to play for, coach Richard Cockerill talks to Chris Hewett about how Leicester became England's dominant force

They tried to talk it up as the closest Premiership campaign of them all and there were times when it looked and felt that way, yet when push came to shove, as it always does in rugby, it was Leicester's uniquely confrontational brand of pushing and shoving that proved irresistible. Again. They finished ahead of the rest by the equivalent of a bonus-point victory, having won more games, and lost fewer, than any of their rivals (which is not always the case with table-topping teams, strangely). Already the most successful club in league history, they are warm favourites to win a record eighth English title and are still in there scrapping on the Heineken Cup front. Crisis? What crisis?

It is but a distant memory now, but in the run-up to Christmas there was very definitely a whiff of impending catastrophe in the air. Having rid themselves of one high-achieving southern hemisphere coach in Marcelo Loffreda without giving the poor Argentine soul even half a chance to shape the team to his liking, there were rumours of board-level dissatisfaction with his South African successor, Heyneke Meyer.

Leicester had been beaten at home by Wasps – oh, the misery of it – and lost at Bath and Sale. What was more, a defeat in Perpignan had left them exposed in Europe, too. When Meyer left for home on compassionate leave, precious few expected him back. And they were proved right.

What to do? There were rumours that Richard Hill might leave Bristol and take over as director of rugby. (Hill did the first bit, but not the second). Eddie Jones, close to spontaneous combustion at Saracens, was also linked with the vacancy. (He went to Japan instead). David Young of Cardiff Blues was placed firmly in the frame, but while discussions were had, there was no formal interview and therefore no job offer. (Nevertheless, the episode adds a pinch of chilli powder to tomorrow's Heineken Cup semi-final between the two clubs at the Millennium Stadium).

The man ultimately chosen was Richard Cockerill – bullet-headed England hooker of yore, street fighter and trespasser on the All Black haka, arch-baiter of Sir Clive Woodward and all-round handful. Cockerill had been heavily involved in the coaching set-up for some years and was handed control on an interim basis after Meyer's departure.

Many of those who assumed he would be denied the full-time appointment did so on the grounds of image: he was not a Leicester giant of Dean Richards' stature, or a successful international coach like Bob Dwyer or Loffreda, or a sharp-talking visionary like Pat Howard, or a learned theoretician like Meyer. He was plain old Cockers, an old-school ruffian with the airs and graces of a 1970s shop steward and, it seemed to follow, neither posh enough nor good enough.

Cockerill would agree with his critics on the subject of poshness, but he is proving plenty good enough. "I'm a working class bloke and proud of it," he says, reflecting the events of the last two-and-a-half months, during which his side has won nine of their 10 games and given themselves another shot at the Premiership-Heineken Cup double they last achieved under Richards in 2002. "But then, this is a working class club. Leicester isn't exactly the most affluent place in the country, but it's a place where community matters. That community spirit runs through the whole of Leicester rugby, connecting the management and players to the people who pay to watch. They see something of themselves in those who wear the shirt, and that's important. There are no flash buggers in this club, no Big I-Ams. Those who come here thinking a bit too much of themselves soon have it beaten out of them."

Since 1996, when club rugby embraced professionalism, the Midlanders have won five Premiership titles and two of the European variety, plus an English knock-out cup and an Anglo-Welsh cup for good measure. Only three times in the past 13 seasons have they finished outside the top four in the league, and they have never failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup. Routinely, they are described as the Manchester United of the union game, not through results alone, but because they operate on a level above their competitors.

Welford Road is the biggest dedicated club rugby stadium in the country – a stadium that will expand again over the course of the summer – and week on week, Leicester attract by far the biggest crowd, many of them season ticket holders. By generating more business than other clubs, they can run a bigger squad, thereby minimising the effect of injuries and international call-ups. Yet size is not the thing that matters most. That is attitude, and by recruiting Cockerill from within rather than head-hunting from without, that attitude has been reinforced.

"We have a lot of players here who people classed as OK before they arrived, but are considered far better than OK now," Cockerill points out. "Was Ben Woods a big-name player before he came here from Newcastle? Was Marco Wentzel on everyone's wish list when we signed him from Treviso? When we recruit, we go after people we think will fit in with our way of doing things. Yes, we've signed some world-class Test players here and there, but with the salary cap operating as it does, we generally concentrate our efforts on finding players who are not necessarily the most expensive, but have the potential to be good for our team."

Leicester have done this time and again. Marcos Ayerza, the brilliant Argentine prop, had never played professional rugby before the Tigers plucked him off the pampas. Julien Dupuy, the uncapped scrum-half signed from Biarritz, also falls into the low-profile, high-value bracket.

The same might be said of another Frenchman, the former Stade Français hooker Benjamin Kayser, and another front-rower in the substantial shape of Boris Stankovich. It is not the size of the reputation that counts, but the strength of the heartbeat.

A week today, Cockerill's team play Bath in a Premiership semi-final at the Walkers Stadium – a repeat of last month's Heineken Cup quarter-final, which Dupuy decided with a last-gasp scuttle to the West Country club's goal-line. Andy Robinson, who played and coached against Leicester on dozens of occasions during a 15-year stint at Bath that preceded his move into the England set-up, acknowledges, albeit through gritted teeth, that the old enemy are the outstanding English club of the professional era.

"During my playing days, we had the better of them," he says. "Even in my last cup final against them in '96, we found a way to beat them, despite the fact that they were clearly the better side for at least an hour. Back then, there was a narrowness about them that left them vulnerable against the best opposition. If they couldn't bully a team, they ran out of ideas. They couldn't bully Bath. We knew that, and I think they knew it, although it didn't stop them trying.

"Over the last few years, they have broadened their game and played with more vision. I thought the rugby they produced in 2001 and 2002, when they won their European titles, was somewhere near perfect. They always had these tough, home-grown characters who would play and die for the shirt, but by bringing in a coach like Pat Howard, who brought something new to their thinking, and recruiting from outside when necessary, they have grown significantly.

"They may not agree with this, but I believe they followed the Bath model in terms of team-building and organisation. In turn, I believe Munster have followed the Leicester model by constructing a strong, aggressive, completely dependable pack and then adding people capable of making a difference. It's no great surprise to me both teams are at the business end of the Heineken Cup this season."

Does Leicester's decision to appoint one of their own in Cockerill signal an end to the broad-mindedness? And if so, what will be the effect on the Tigers' fortunes as the money men in the boardroom continue to spend heavily on the redevelopment of Welford Road? The early signs are that Cockerill is a whole lot smarter than he looks, and far more open to ideas than he lets on. There again, he has not changed all of his old front-rower's stripes.

"For some reason," he muses, "we're not fashionable with the pundits. At the start of every season they say we don't have the best squad and we don't play the best brand of rugby. Yet every season, we seem to end up qualifying for Europe and competing for titles. People are at it again now, describing us as underdogs for this game with Cardiff Blues. Well, not in our dressing room.

"The Blues are a quality side – very physical, especially in the backs. But we don't drop off tackles and we don't concede many tries. I'm reluctant to accept it will be one-way traffic in Wales." Fighting talk, from one of life's fighters.

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