Tale of two cities: Chiefs are surfing waves of success as Leicester tread water

first_imgWhen Leicester last won the Premiership title it was at precisely this stage of the season in 2012 that they welcomed Exeter to Welford Road and promptly sent them packing back down to the West Country, tails between their legs. In the five years since, the sides’ relative progress has been nigh-on diametrically opposed – Exeter have soared, Leicester stagnated.The comparison between the two is relevant because their similarities are abundant. Both attempt to live within their means, there are rarely many empty seats when either play at home and both clubs have an earthiness to them. Not so long ago Leicester provided the blueprint for Saturday’s visitors, now the Chiefs are threatening to leave them behind.“I think there are a lot of similarities if you speak to people at both clubs about what you perceive to be their virtues, you’d come up with the same words,” says the Leicester chief executive, Simon Cohen. “Down to earth, humble, hard-working. A people’s club and a family club, both have those aspirations and values.” Marcus Smith shines for Harlequins but Leicester Tigers turn the tide features Exeter Share via Email Share on Twitter Read more Since you’re here… … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.Our editorial independence means we set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Guardian journalism is free from commercial and political bias and not influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We hope you will consider supporting us today. We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Sign up to the Breakdown for the latest rugby union news Premiership Read more Share on Facebookcenter_img Support The Guardian Share on Pinterest Share on LinkedIn Rugby union “If you look at the squads for all the top teams they’ve got international players in almost every position,” he says. “To come out of the academy and be better than those players is harder than it’s ever been. Cyclically, you have a group of very good players coming out of the academy. We had it a little while ago with Manu and Ben Youngs, Saracens have recently, Exeter had with [Dave] Ewers, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade. That is the new reality.”If Leicester and Exeter is a tale of two cities then it is apt it takes place against the backdrop of revolt. It has been another week dominated by talk of industrial action by players in the face of plans to extend the season and it was troubling to listen to the England captain, Dylan Hartley, this week discuss the issue that will come to define his generation. “I don’t know much about it,” he said, “but I don’t know where to get the information from.”It is not laziness, nor ignorance, on Hartley’s part – rather he is, to all intents and purposes, in the dark. And here is the crux of the matter. Premiership Rugby chose a good day to bury bad news when announcing its plans for a 10-month season, the Monday morning after the Six Nations had packed up and rolled out of town. The lack of subsequent detail, or consultation with the players that has led to talk of strike action, does not sit well.On the face of it, the motivations of the Premiership clubs are understandable. When soaring wage bills have led to a collective loss of approximately £30m, they have had enough of being without their international players – their crowd-pullers – for large parts of the season. Dig a litter deeper, however, and not all 12 clubs share that view.“For us it has never been an issue of competing with international rugby,” says Cohen. “England played Australia a couple of years ago and we played Harlequins and sold out. I don’t feel fans are short-changed about not seeing their international players enough. If we have to compete with international rugby we are happy to do that.“I know you want me to say that commercially we can’t afford to shorten the season but I don’t believe that because I have some sympathy for the players’ position. Without players, we don’t have a game. We have to accommodate their concerns and welfare and we have to make it work financially around that, rather than the other way around. I find it very difficult to see how [a 10-month season] can work.”Cohen’s views are interesting because firstly they blow apart the myth that club boardrooms are on one side of the fence, the players on the other. And secondly, because last June Leicester announced a loss in their annual accounts. The £424,000 pales in comparison to those of Wasps, Bath and Saracens – clubs who rely on wealthy benefactors to absorb their debts – but when a club as traditionally successful as the Tigers is in the red it is clear that 20 years since the advent of the Premiership, the club model is far from perfect. Wages are currently a far greater proportion of turnover than is manageable and Brexit is among the key reasons sponsorship is hard to come by, leading to an overreliance on the funds generated from TV rights.“It’s certainly difficult, finances are not easy, but it’s a weird old world,” Cohen adds. “The Premiership has never been more successful, the rugby is attractive, any team can beat any other team on their day. The revenues are higher than they’ve ever been so in that sense it’s extremely successful. But in attempting to do all those things, we’re spending more on players than we would like in this stage of our development.” Topics Share on Messenger Leicester Share on WhatsApp Leicester anticipate their biggest gate of the season on Saturday but the Chiefs are in fine form and won the fixture 34-15 last term. The most feared pack in the Premiership was once the Tigers’ but it is now an accolade that belongs to the Chiefs, who are thriving on and off the pitch, making a profit of £2.1m last year.Even with the upheaval of losing Richard Cockerill, Aaron Mauger and Scott Hansen last season Leicester maintained their record of reaching the play-offs every year since 2005. But trophies – the Anglo-Welsh Cup aside – are proving harder to come by and despite the summer arrivals of George Ford and Jonny May, and the return to fitness of Matt Toomua, they have been scratchy so far under Matt O’Connor this season, losing their first two before wins against Gloucester and Harlequins.“Success is very difficult for anybody because there are some very good sides,” says Cohen. “But Matt O’Connor has given us absolute clarity in what he wants from the players. They’ve responded well to that. I think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody of winning the Premiership this year. If you look at the bedrock of great Leicester sides you talk about Les Cusworth, Paul Dodge, Rory Underwood, you’re talking about sides that have always played pretty, attractive rugby. You can’t just sit back and expect people to come through the door, there’s too much competition in the leisure industry for people’s money now.”Leicester’s answer to the blank run has been recruitment. The stream of academy graduates to the senior England team has dried up since the Youngs brothers and Manu Tuilagi – it is a rare thing indeed for a Lions tour to pass off without any Tigers earning caps, as was the case in New Zealand. A quick look at the map would suggest they are hampered by the proximity of Worcester, Wasps and Northampton, but Cohen disagrees. Reuse this contentlast_img read more