Steve Borthwick has had a notable impact in his first full season at Leicester
The hustle and bustle inside the Leicester Tigers’ training facility on the south-eastern outskirts of the city this week still bristled with what resembled a heady mix of pre-season optimism and a touch of chaos, even as Steve Borthwick’s first full season in charge of Leicester Tigers draws to a close.
Preparations for the club’s final Premiership game of the season against Wasps on Saturday – with a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup on the line – have taken place amid a backdrop of ongoing major renovation work at the club’s Oval Park training ground.
Chairs are stacked up as rooms are reconfigured and redecorated, key messages are scribbled on white boards and impromptu meetings are sometimes held in corridors.
Even the club’s impressive new chief executive, Andrea Pinchen, does not appear phased by having to set up a makeshift workstation where she can, having opted to spend most of the season at the squad’s base rather than at her official office at Welford Road.
Change is in the air, and in every sense.
The much-need renovations, which began at the end of last season after the first easing of the lockdown restrictions, are not just about improving the facilities. They are also symbolic of the radical overhaul of the club being implemented by Borthwick, with the full-backing of Pinchen.
The hierarchical days when Leicester’s experienced players – either internationals and/or had children while playing for the club – had their own changing room while the rest were left knowing they had yet to earn their spurs, are long gone.
The new changing rooms are for everyone. Inclusivity has replaced hierarchy as the Tigers’ watchword.
This one-for-all mindset is a key tenet of ‘Project Tigers’, the name of Borthwick’s mission statement for the daunting task of rebuilding the status of England’s most successful club, who only avoided relegation last season because of Saracens’ demotion due to salary-cap breaches.
“When I first started here, and I was the ticket sales manager, you’d have your Martin Johnsons and your Lewis Moodys coming into the ticket office,” said Pinchen, speaking from a small room shared by two other colleagues. “It was really archaic when I took over – they had to stand on the other side of the glass partition and only the manager of the ticket office could serve them.
Andrea Pinchen became Leicester chief executive last year
“I didn’t get why I would treat them any differently. They’d be standing in the ticket office waiting while we’re on the phone and if the phones were ringing off the wall, I would be thinking: ‘If someone wants to buy a ticket, just pick the b—– phone up.’
“That’s how I’ve always been. We want everybody here to be a part of what we’re trying to achieve. It does sound twee but whether you are George Ford or somebody in the ticket office, you are equally important to what we are trying to do.”
The redesigned offices have also integrated the coaching staff to the heart of the operation, having previously been based in separate buildings, while every member of staff is invited to attend the weekly team meeting to underscore the sense of collective spirit.
And Pinchen sees Borthwick as the embodiment of Leicester’s version of ‘levelling up’ through his work ethic, attention to detail and analytical preparation as he attempts to overhaul the mindset and culture of the club, which is not dissimilar to the size of the task that once faced Sir Alex Ferguson in attempting to lift Manchester United out of the doldrums in the late 1980s.
His commitment to the project was the main reason behind his decision to turn down a potential offer from Warren Gatland to join the British and Irish Lions coaching team for the tour of South Africa this summer, despite describing his experience on the tour of New Zealand as one of his greatest experiences of his career.
“It was an absolute privilege to have had the conversation with Gats but my primary responsibility is here and I know we’ve got an awful lot of work to do,” said Borthwick. “I can’t miss a day, I can’t take a day off.
“That’s the responsibility that I have and our supporters demand that quite rightly. We need to continue to push and make improvements each day, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do on the other teams.”
When Borthwick first took charge 11 months ago, after stepping down from his key role as Eddie Jones’ right-hand man with England, he gave a presentation to the squad using a simple variation of the Kubler-Ross change curve to illustrate the extent of the rebuilding that was required after the 10-times champions managed to accumulate just 29 points last season.
“At the start of the season I gave a presentation to the players based on his U-curve of how a business declines, plateaus and then rises again,” said Borthwick.
“I pointed to the downslope of the curve and told the players: ‘We are somewhere here. I don’t know if we are still coming down this year but our job is to get to the plateau and start rising again rapidly.
“How steep the curve is will be based upon two things – how hard we work and how quickly we learn.”
The foundation stones of Borthwick's project are rooted in Leicester’s proud past
Now, victory against Wasps on Saturday would secure sixth place in the Premiership table. And having also reached the final of the European Challenge Cup, where they narrowly lost to Montpellier, it appears that Leicester have already begun their ascendency. Project Tigers appears to be taking shape.
The levelling-up process also included opening the door of opportunity to the bright young guns, mostly from Leicester’s academy, in an attempt to kickstart a once prolific production line that had stalled in recent years, with the likes of Freddie Steward, George Martin, Jack van Poortvliet, Dan Kelly, Ollie Chessum, Cameron Henderson and James Whitcombe shining examples this season.
Yet while he looks firmly to the future, the foundation stones of the project are rooted in Leicester’s proud past.
The first step forward this season has been to improve the players’ fitness, reaffirming their pride in the jersey and reasserting the physical menace that defined the great Leicester sides of yesteryear.
He has found willing foot soldiers in that regard from the likes of Ellis Genge, Harry Wells and Jasper Wiese.
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“When I was always an opposing player at Welford Road, you might win or you might lose, but it was always tough,” Borthwick added. “Why was it tough? Because they were fit, they were incredibly hard-working and you could tell that playing for Leicester Tigers meant an awful lot to them.
“I want a team that has that. We have moved somewhere towards that but we are not there yet.”
Connected to that is the club’s relationship with their supporters. Borthwick still remembers the afternoon in September 2011 when he featured in a Saracens side that put 50 points on Leicester at Welford Road, with his abiding memory seeing the home crowd still cheering for their team at the death, despite the record defeat.
“They weren’t cheering because of the result but because they really cared for their team and I thought: ‘That is success’.
“The supporters want to see a team that is hard-working, honest and that cares. I think that’s the base of a good team. That is our commitment to them.”