Head coach Steve Borthwick says Leicester Tigers have been rebuilt on “the fight” they showed in the defeat that marked his arrival 22 months ago.
It was a 26-13 loss at Exeter that came during the pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season in which Tigers were only spared the drop because of Saracens’ relegation for salary-cap breaches.
Two years later, Tigers and Sarries meet in Saturday’s Premiership final.
“That game jumps out. I saw something to work with,” Borthwick said.
“It was my first game. We played Exeter Chiefs away. About 20 minutes into game we were 6-0 up, then Exeter turned it, scored two or three tries quickly and I thought ‘right, we are going to be tested here. What is going to happen?’
“They could have turned that into 50 points very fast, because they are that good.
“I saw the guys fight really hard. I thought George [Ford] was excellent that day. It was a disappointing loss, but in a sense I thought ‘right, we have fight’.”
While that “fight” was not enough for them to avoid defeat that day at Exeter, or enough to stop them from a second successive second-from-bottom finish in the league, Borthwick knew what he had to work with.
“All the technical and tactical aspects of what you want to do as a team lies secondary to characteristics you have as a team,” he said.
“I came in to a new group, a new team, they didn’t know me a huge amount, and I was trying to learn about them quickly. To see that then, I thought we have potential for a foundation.”
In Borthwick’s first full campaign as head coach at Welford Road last term, Tigers finished sixth in the table and 17 points off the semi-final spots.
This season they made history as the first Premiership club to go an entire season on top of the table after every round, and have booked their first Twickenham final appearance for nine years.
Borthwick, who won the Premiership with Saracens as a player, says Tigers are now focused on putting in a final performance “to be proud of”.
“I want us to be the best versions of ourselves right now, in this moment,” Borthwick said.
“After this game we’ll deal with whatever comes next, and I’m not bothered about what happened in the past.
“Where we are right now is all we can control. That’s the theme this week.”
‘Tigers always been in the fight’ – analysis
Adam Whitty, Tigers reporter at BBC Radio Leicester
I remember being in the stands for that match against Exeter in August, Leicester’s first match back after a five-month Covid hiatus. Steve Borthwick is correct, that you could see the very beginnings of Leicester’s revival, even if it seemed a long way away then.
What I remember about Leicester’s coaching that afternoon was in many ways it showed what was to come, providing the first signs of how Borthwick and his team have turned things around. They were far more organised, playing with purpose and fight. I also remember the warm-up – there was so much energy in it. Borthwick and his players were charging around the field, demanding greater fitness and passion from each other.
Those are attributes that have stayed with them and played a huge part in their turnaround. Tigers haven’t always been brilliant, but they have showed fight, grit and determination. They have always ‘been in the fight’ – it has meant they have won games they had no right to.
Borthwick and his coaching team filtered in a more dynamic playing style from very simple beginnings, but their heart and discipline was there from the start of his reign, and provided the foundations for their success.