They still play the opening riff to Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple whenever Leicester run out at home. Coincidentally it was released in the first week of May some 49 years ago and it also feels a long time since the Tigers last hosted a more thunderous European knockout fixture. Saturday’s quarter-final against Leinster seems unlikely to involve much peace or love.
It takes more than a few pumped-up supporters, clearly, to beat one of Europe’s classiest sides but, equally, there is no question the Premiership leaders quietly fancy their chances inside their own noisily atmospheric lair. Drag the visitors from their comfort zone, hassle them in possession, kick smartly and turn the forward screw and maybe Leicester can dare to dream about making only their second Champions Cup semi‑final since 2009.
There was certainly no hint of defeatism in the voice of the Tigers captain, Ellis Genge, on the eve of a game which will define how far the club have come under head coach Steve Borthwick’s stewardship. “We are not plucky losers, we are not that type of team,” muttered Genge this week. “I’m not going to let people build the manifestation of Leinster being the European giants that they are. They have got to come to our backyard. It’s our gaff.”
Never mind if “Fortress Mattioli Woods Welford Road” does not exactly trip off the tongue and slightly interferes with the dark, forbidding vibe. As Genge says, this is not a contest for which anyone needs motivating – “I don’t think games get much bigger than Leinster at home in the European quarter-finals” – and years of painful exile from Europe’s sharp end is also intensifying local hunger.
At this point it is worth recalling last year’s quarter-finals when Leinster flew over to England to play the defending champions Exeter and won 34-22. “They kept an intensity in the game which meant we never really settled,” lamented Exeter’s Rob Baxter, having seen his side ultimately outdone at the breakdown and physically nullified. There is a significant difference this time: Leinster will not be operating in an echoing, empty ground but, from Genge’s perspective, in one of rugby’s most intimidating cauldrons: “It’s definitely the best stadium I have played in in terms of atmosphere, hands down.
“We’ve got a brilliant bunch of fans and I hope to see them there en masse because they really are a 16th man or woman for us. There are a few stats you look at that say home advantage is worth a few points. I am not sure many of their boys have had the opportunity to play here. So it’s a good challenge for us, to see where we’re at.”
People were talking in similar terms about England prior to the visit of Ireland to Twickenham in the Six Nations, only for Charlie Ewels’ early red card to facilitate a 32-15 Irish win. On that day, though, the 27-year-old Genge had some scrummaging joy opposite the celebrated Tadhg Furlong and, with Leicester having earned more scrum penalties in Europe this season than anyone else, is again looking to set a no-nonsense tone. “We came up trumps at the scrum last time at Twickenham but by no means does that mean it is going to happen again. Tadhg is brilliant, he is obviously a British & Irish Lion twice and he is a world-class international. I’ll put my best foot forward and hopefully he meets me in the middle.”
Nor does Genge reckon the English were too far short in other areas until their numerical disadvantage ultimately told in the final quarter. No one doubts the quality of Leinster’s Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris or the sharp young winger Jimmy O’Brien, all shortlisted for EPCR’s player of the season, but in the shape of Genge, Julian Montoya, Jasper Wiese and Tommy Reffell there is an undeniably steely core to Tigers as well.
While the visitors, with James Ryan and Ronan Kelleher both starting, will look to pick away at the seams of Leicester’s defensive curtain and retain possession before striking with near-surgical precision, the Tigers will be focussed on disruption. Line speed, lineout homework and aerial pressure will all be key weapons, as will the continuing desire to channel the continuing emotion generated by the recent retirement of their former captain Tom Youngs.
Genge and Youngs, in the early days of their relationship, were not natural bedfellows. “Off the pitch we really didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. Farmer boy meets city boy … I was quite chopsy as well and we just didn’t get on too well.” Gradually, though, they came to recognise they shared the same broad objective, namely a mutual willingness to put their bodies on the line for the collective Tiger cause.
That same unflinching esprit de corps is what distinguished the great Leicester sides who won back to back European titles in 2001 and 2002 and poses the biggest barrier to Leinster’s progression this year. In the past two seasons the Irish province have been disconcerted by the power of Saracens and La Rochelle respectively but, like Ireland, they are well marshalled with the ability to push on even further.
There is also the small matter of their less stressful build-up, with their senior players not required for recent United Rugby Championship games in South Africa while their Leicester counterparts have mostly had to soldier on through. “The central contract system over in Ireland is very beneficial for them whereas we obviously don’t have that perk,” observes Genge. “We have got a lot of minutes in our legs but I think the emotional state of the boys will definitely be enough.”
And therein lies the rugged beauty of this intriguing Anglo-Irish summit. Leicester are not yet the finished article but they are fit and efficient. Give them some momentum and they are reliably tough to beat. “If we do what we have done all year then I think we’re going to be all right,” confirms Genge.
“We’re happy with how we’re progressing but I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.” Crucially, they also love a scrap. “One thing you know about the Irish boys is they have a lot of dog in them so they will be coming for that battle. We relish opportunities like that.” Time to crank up Ritchie Blackmore’s classic guitar intro – Daa-Daa-Daah, Daa-Daa-Daa-Daaah! – to 11 and unleash some hardcore ruck and roll.