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Leicester Tigers go into the new domestic rugby season having won the same trophy for the past two seasons. But Tigers, who kick off their Zurich Premiership season away to Sale on Sunday, are desperate to avoid an unwanted hat-trick.
The Zurich Wildcard is an index of recent failure. After winning four consecutive Zurich Premierships and two Heineken European Cups, Leicester have twice needed to use this rather dubious back door into Europe for teams not good enough to win direct qualification.
It is too little to satisfy the largest supporter base in club rugby. Chief executive Peter Wheeler says: “I think we can make significant progress. I'd hope to be near the top of the Premiership, in the later stages of the Powergen Cup and the quarter-finals of the Heineken, although we've an extremely difficult draw with Biarritz and Wasps in the same pool.”
Falling short cost Dean Richards his job as chief coach last season. It was, confirms veteran prop forward Graham Rowntree, a profound shock: “We'd lost our icon and leader. If Dean Richards could be sacked, so could any of us.”
Leicester's much-publicised worldwide hunt for a successor ended with the appointment of a man who was already there, Richards' deputy John Wells. Wells had assembled impressive credentials during his time as acting coach, with a long winning run to salvage Heineken qualification. Wells himself downplays his own role, suggesting that the return of key players from injury and international duty was more significant.
Rowntree, who concedes that “we probably did need a bit of a shock as we were getting a little slack day to day”, says: “I'm delighted it has gone so well for Wellsy. He was always an important part of the set-up alongside Dean, so he had his share in the good years. He's always frank with you and that's a rare quality in coaches.”
Reconstruction continued in the summer. Australian Pat Howard was recruited as backs coach with the mission of refreshing Tigers' back division, much as he did as a player a few years ago. Pre-season training has made players very aware of new athletic performance coach Phil Mack: “He's made us bloody fit. I haven't felt as good pre-season for years”, says Rowntree.
Playing recruitment has had a South Sea flavour. Seru Rabeni, a Fijian World Cup star who can play full-back, wing or centre, has arrived along with Tongan hooker Efraim Taufaka, who explained that the chance to play alongside Martin Johnson and Neil Back gave Tigers the edge over other clubs. Tigers can now field three Tuilagi brothers backs Alex and Andy joining back-rower Henry while ebullient hooker Richard Cockerill is back after a spell with Montferrand.
Regaining their old standing is far from guaranteed. They will have to do without Springbok Jaco van der Westhuyzen, a man of integrity who insisted on fulfilling a contract to play in Japan. Tigers will look to Andy Goode, an as yet unfulfilled talent, and England under-19s' Ross Broadfoot to fill the gap at outside-half. Then there is the sheer quality of the competition Wells points out that a successful season could mean playing Wasps, their successor as English rugby's dominant club, up to seven times.
But the air of renewed optimism at Leicester is unmistakeable. Rowntree, says: “There's a real buzz. I haven't looked forward to a new season so much for a good 10 years.”
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