It was a Premiership match that made few headlines, played on a dark February night in Devon while the Six Nations' Championship was on and the crowd was shivering in Paris waiting for the France versus Ireland game that did not start. But if Leicester Tigers win next Saturday's play-off final against Harlequins at Twickenham, they will look back with pleasure on a defeat at Exeter Chiefs that caused ructions among players and coaches.
Exeter, the unregarded upstarts in only their second Premiership season, won 19-11 to complete a season's double over the perennial contenders. Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi had made comebacks after a few weeks off injured; the customary half-dozen or so of their fellow internationals were on Test duty; a tiring Flood was charged down for a try in the second half; a sloppy pass to nowhere led to Exeter's clinching penalty. But it set alarm bells clanging. Tigers' self-confessed motormouth of a director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, was all set for a collective telling of fortunes. But that wasn't what the players wanted.
"The players came in the dressing room," Cockerill recalls, "and I said: 'That was unacceptable. If we think it is acceptable, we're bullshitting ourselves.' And I left the room because I didn't want to say something I shouldn't have. Geordie [Geordan Murphy, the captain] spoke to me on the bus home and said: 'On Monday, I'd like to meet with the players – on my own with the senior players – to discuss that stuff.' And I went: 'Yeah, fine.'"
And so, on the Monday morning, and for the first and only time this season, the players ran their own video analysis and left Cockerill and his assistant Matt O'Connor kicking their heels. "We were about fifth or sixth in the table," says Murphy. "Exeter were below us, but it meant everything to them. They played with passion, with pride, and we didn't play well, we didn't score a try, a lot of guys underperformed.
"We watched 25 minutes cut-up of the mistakes we made and the boys just opened up after that. The senior players spoke – me, Dan Cole, Toby Flood, Louis Deacon, Craig Newby, I'm probably forgetting one or two. It was very honest, most of the guys were on the same page and we had to raise our intensity, raise our focus, raise our efforts, raise our training standards. We did all those things and as a result kick-started the season."
Eleven straight wins have followed – beginning at Saracens, where Murphy dropped a late goal – to usher Leicester into an eighth straight Premiership final. "We are blessed with great coaches here," says Murphy. "Cockers really instils the Leicester spirit, that hard edge; Matty O'Connor is one of the best coaches I've worked with in his planning and his focus. But at the end of the day the coaches can only do so much. When the whistle blows, the players have to implement everything."
Cockerill says: "It was the players taking the onus on themselves to make sure the quality of training was good and if somebody was not concentrating or applying themselves as they should, they would be dealing with it rather than me the whole time. I don't care where the ideas come from. A lot of the players here have far more knowledge than I do in their chosen positions. It was the realisation that, bloody hell, if we don't actually sort this out we're going to be crap. Historically at Leicester you have a crisis meeting before it's a crisis. One shit result – the worst performance of the season for me – was enough."
Cockerill does not mind pointing out that Tigers' 14 major trophies won in the last 20 seasons have been with him there as a player or coach. He also knows players are attracted by Tigers' success and their 24,000-capacity stadium; by the training facilities built with the profits of their first Heineken Cup final win in 2001, and by a board full of men with rugby nous including Peter Tom, Peter Wheeler and Sir Clive Woodward.
The England flanker Tom Croft is out until October with a neck injury, and Cockerill is unable or unwilling to state for certain that Flood and flanker Julian Salvi will be fit for Saturday. It will be Harlequins' first play-off final as they seek a first league title. Leicester won 43-33 at Quins three weeks ago and came second to them in the league. "We'll both have fresh ideas and moves you won't have seen," says Murphy. "If Quins want to throw it around and be exciting, the Twickenham pitch will suit them. It'll be a ding-dong old battle, I'd say."
This wonderful ball-player from Naas, Co Kildare was badly missed by Leicester in last year's final defeat by Saracens, when he had a broken foot, having been captain for the wins in 2009 and 2010. "Yes, at the very end [last May] when we were hammering away, it was frustrating," Murphy says. "If we could have gone two passes... who knows? The losses tend to be more memorable than the wins.
"Everybody deep down stresses and worries about the whole season being on one game or even one incident. But we're inherently bred as rugby players to be confident. Everybody believes that they're the guy who's going to win it for their team – not the one who's going to lose it."
Tigers' run of eight Premiership finals
2005: Leicester 14 London Wasps 39
The Tigers' farewell to Martin Johnson and Neil Back is ruined by Lawrence Dallaglio's ruthlessly focused Wasps.
2006: Leicester 20 Sale Sharks 45
Future England scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth guides all-star Sale side, for whom this is as good as it gets.
2007: Leicester 44 Gloucester 16
First title since 2002, as Alesana Tuilagi blasts two tries past hopelessly undersized Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen and James Simpson-Daniel.
2008: Leicester 16 London Wasps 26
Martin Corry's third final as captain brings a second defeat, as Dallaglio celebrates an emotional retirement.
2009: Leicester 10 London Irish 9
Jordan Crane's try is decisive as the team who finished top in the regular season win the final for only the second time in seven seasons.
2010: Leicester 33 Saracens 27
The all-time classic final is won by replacement centre Dan Hipkiss's last-minute try as Saracens hesitated expecting a referee's whistle.
2011: Leicester 18 Saracens 22
Sarries' revenge – England half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood are unable to work a winning try in almost 40 phases of added-time possession.
2012: Leicester v Harlequins
Twickenham, 26 May (3pm).Reuse content