Peter Bills: Leicester epitomise the meaning of a rugby club

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The Independent Online

England have still to play the All Blacks, France have tasty looking encounters lined up against South Africa in Toulouse this Friday and New Zealand, in Marseille, at the end of the month.

Nevertheless, I would be surprised if any match in the remainder of this month or season reproduces the roaring emotion, the jagged edge-of-seats stuff and the sensational outcome that made Leicester against the South Africans the match of the season so far.



Last Friday evening at Welford Road epitomised the real meaning of a rugby club. Leicester's roots run as deep as the mightiest of oaks, a strong, proud tradition that exemplifies what club rugby has always been about.



Much has changed at Leicester since professionalism arrived. At times, and I've been one of their sternest critics, they play the type of rugby that would drive most people who are not Tigers supporters away from the game. Kick for the opposition 22, win the line-out, ball up the jersey and churn forwards until you reach the line and someone in a group of 8 or more players falls over the line. It'd send me to sleep.



But having said all that, there remains much to admire about the club. It has a set of followers who are so loyal many would turn up for the away fixture at Krasnoyarsk. They filled Leicester and its new Caterpillar stand last weekend, creating a terrific atmosphere with 24,000 voices in full flow.



Yet the portents were hardly encouraging. Most of us in the press box surveyed the two teams, especially Leicester's weakened outfit, and suggested a 30-point stroll for the South Africans. After all, look at some of the players they had – Pienaar, Rossouw, Steenkamp, Jannie du Plessis, Olivier, Ndungane, Nokwe and a few others. Sure, there were some kids too but there should have been enough comfortably to see off so weakened a Leicester side.



Doubtless that was what the South Africans expected. But what we got was one of the best displays of raw emotion you'll witness in years. Not just caused by the atmosphere but by the deeds of the home players on the pitch. Leicester's hotch-potch side played as if its very life depended upon it.



Stand-in captain Aaron Mauger, the former All Black, was playing out of position at No. 10, so short were the Tigers. Yet he emphasised to his team beforehand; show them respect but do not show awe. We can beat them.



Leicester, and their fanatical followers, then went out and did just that. The team gave the supporters their cue with some stirring early efforts and, once they'd got into the opposition heads with their singing, roaring and constant encouragement, they never let go.



On the field, there was the bravest of bravest displays. Leicester's heroes flung themselves at the mighty South Africans, cutting them down as they would have been on a fence of barbed wire. And then came the piece de resistance; Martin Castrogiovanni gave THE tight head scrummaging performance not just of this season but of any for the past few years.



The Italian utterly destroyed the South African scrum. For powerful, proud South Africans, this was nothing short of humiliation. At one point, a South African scrum hurtled back about 15 metres. The visitors had never seen anything like it.



The crowd, increasingly aware that they could be witnessing a sensational upset, were going spare. I can tell you, even those in the press box were going spare, living every move, helping make every tackle. This was the very best of sporting emotion, a live event and real lifestyle drama which was simply unmissable. I'd battled the Friday evening traffic around London and up the M1, cursing at the coming rain and growing congestion. Well, all those thoughts disappeared on such a unique occasion.



Frankly, you felt privileged to be there, witnessing such an extraordinary performance of guts and determination. But then, perhaps are the two qualities that best define Leicester rugby club. They offer their visitors the warmest of welcomes and, whatever the occasion, give their all on the field. Off it, they gave every help and assistance we in the media could have wished.



A well organised club, a club with tradition and with the vision to create something special and back their judgement by building a fine new stand... these are just some of the qualities that make Leicester different. But essentially, where Leicester has been cleverest is in somehow retaining that unique 'feel' about the club.



It doesn't strike you as a 21st century professional outfit that just wants to suck money out of you at every turn, as is too often the feeling you have at Twickenham. Of course, finances are crucial in the modern age but Leicester have magically retained that sense of club spirit above all else.



It was alive and kicking last Friday night, backed by some of the craziest, most fanatical and most loyal supporters to be found anywhere in the world.



Whatever the secret concoction is, we can but hope Peter Tom, Peter Wheeler and all those who plot the future path of the English champions, continue to hold true to their roots. It is those traditions that make this place so unique, not just in English but world rugby.

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