Leicester open the defence of the Anglo-Welsh Cup on Saturday. Rugby World looks at some of the facts, stats and characters associated with the home of this grand old club
Tom Varndell’s late score to beat Stade Français in a European quarter-final, the historic and gutsy victory over the Springboks, and the emotional day when Matt Hampson was reintroduced to the crowd after his life-changing accident – just three of the more recent memories from 125 years of Leicester Tigers rugby at Welford Road.
Leicester will be back out there again this weekend when they start their defence of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, which they secured last year with a 16-12 defeat of Exeter Chiefs.
Gloucester – who will host this season’s final on 18 March – are the visitors for the first-round pool match as the Tigers begin their quest for a ninth Cup title in its various guises, with either John Player, Pilkington or EDF Energy having sponsored the trophy during the club’s previous triumphs.
Bath, with ten titles from 1984-96, have set the benchmark but the Midlanders are hot on their tail. Before this season’s campaign gets underway, we reflect on some of the players and events of the past 125 years at Welford Road. Thanks to Leicester Tigers for providing most of the photos you see below, and to the official Tigers history book written by Stuart Farmer and David Hands, which provides a wealth of information.
MARTIN JOHNSON and Neil Back are two of the Leicester greats, playing 267 Premiership matches between them for Tigers and winning a shedload of trophies to go with their World Cup winners’ medals from 2003.
Second-row Johnson holds the record for the most successive victories in a Tigers shirt, recording 31 between October 2000 and January 2002. He captained the club during their glory years around the turn of the century, including the back-to-back Heineken Cup wins, and only two men have led their side more often in Premiership rugby – Lawrence Dallaglio and Steve Borthwick. Johnson’s win rate as captain across his 132 league games was 76%.
Back’s impact was barely less perceptible, the flanker scoring a club record 125 tries in 339 appearances. In his book The Death of Rugby, Back recalls how Ladbrokes set up a shop at Welford Road and offered odds of about 20-1 on him scoring the first try.
That price soon plummeted to 6-1 as Back routinely finished off the Tigers’ formidable driving mauls, but he writes: “The odds on Garf (Darren Garforth) were something like 50-1. I know you weren’t allowed to bet on yourselves, and I never did, but we could really have made some money if I’d just slipped the ball to Garf instead!”
Even so, Back’s scoring feats led to Ladbrokes losing a lot of money and they pulled out halfway through that season.
The two men signed off at Welford Road in the same match, a 45-10 Premiership win against Wasps in 2005. They received a standing ovation and head coach John Wells said: “If you could write scripts you would have written that one.”
WELFORD ROAD was just outside the town boundary when the Tigers signed a lease in 1892 to play on an acre of land there. The new ground, which was called Aylestone Road for the first few weeks, opened on 10 September 1892 with a match against the Leicestershire Rugby Union. Leicester won 17-0.
The Leicester Guardian reported: “It is rather an unkind sneer on the part of non footballers to say that the new ground is in the right place, handy both for the infirmary and the cemetery!”
The YMCA and the Press & Panto Company were among those to hire the ground and straw was purchased at 37 shillings a ton to protect the pitch from winter frost. The club committee considered floodlighting but decided against buying 12 naphtha lamps on account of cost.
ENGLAND didn’t always play expansive rugby during the dozen years that Rory Underwood represented his country. So the fact he scored 49 Test tries – streets ahead of his nearest Red Rose challengers, Will Greenwood and Ben Cohen – tells you everything you need to know about the powerful Leicester wing who made a habit of brushing off tacklers.
Underwood scored 134 tries for Leicester in his 236 appearances (1983-97) and today the former RAF pilot is a non-executive director on the Tigers board.
“If you get the chance to go in the changing rooms before a game, the shirts are not laid out one to 15,” he says. “When we moved across from the clubhouse end to the new changing rooms on the terrace, you have players that have superstitions. For example, Stuart Redfern would sit by the door, I was in between Barry Evans and Dusty Hare – and since then it has stayed and is now a club tradition.”
WELFORD ROAD has been modernised regularly throughout its history and its current capacity of 25,849 makes it the largest purpose-built rugby ground in the UK.
The 10,000-seat Holland & Barrett Stand (at the North end) was built in 2009 and is the country’s second-largest single-tier stand after Liverpool FC’s Kop. Featuring extra bars, hospitality and a new reception area, the £14m structure replaced the Members Stand that had stood for nearly a century.
DEAN RICHARDS made his Leicester debut in 1982, captained the club for four seasons in the early Nineties and as director of rugby steered Tigers to four consecutive league titles and two European Cups in the early years of professionalism. He clocked up 314 first-team appearances.
Between 1998 and 2002, Leicester went a staggering 57 home Premiership games without defeat and Richards, the successor to Bob Dwyer, was the man in charge for all but the first two games of that sequence.
The late Frank Keating quoted Les Cusworth in a piece about Richards in 2001. “We blooded Dean down at Neath, a hell of a baptism on one of those filthy wet nights South Wales always greeted us with,” said the ex-Tigers fly-half.
“Those hard Neath boys were full of vile and evil intentions, especially when they realised our pack had chosen a first-up young English greenhorn. They got up to all sorts – but Dean just grinned that big daft grin of his, took everything they threw at him and never batted an eyelid. Suddenly the whole game revolved around him and we won 10-8. Incredible.”
A giant in the tight exchanges, Richards didn’t wear the number ‘eight’ on his club shirt because of tradition. Instead, he wore the letter ‘G’, a convention that went back to the 1926-27 season when Leicester forwards first wore letters to aid identification. The lettering was extended to the whole team in 1931 and when everyone else switched to numbers, Tigers stood firm, sticking to their letters system right up to the late 1990s when tournament rules forced their hand.
The Tigers first wore numbers on their backs at the start of the 1998-99 season, against Harlequins, and two years later we saw players’ names added as TV requested a further change to assist in identifying players on screen.
ONLY ONCE has adverse weather forced a postponement of a Premiership match at Welford Road – in December 2000 when frost prevented the match against Sale from going ahead. Prior to that, home league games against Orrell in 1991 (snow) and Sale in 1995 (frost) also fell foul of the cold, but overall the ground has proved remarkably resilient.
In January 2010, ground staff and volunteers cleared 35 tons of snow from the pitch and terraces, enabling Tigers to beat Wasps 34-8 in the only game of rugby played in England that weekend.
In November 1903, London Welsh were the visitors for a match played in such dense fog that for long passages, spectators could see nothing at all! In contrast, the September 1895 encounter with Gloucester was played in a sweltering 112 degrees.
STEVE KENNEY scored the try that did for Moseley in the 1979 John Player Cup final, sparking a Tigers hat-trick as London Irish and Gosforth succumbed at Twickenham in the ensuing two years. The scrum-half formed a famous half-back partnership with Les Cusworth and by the time he played his last Tigers game in 1990 had amassed 365 appearances.
“As an 11-year-old I used to jump on a couple of buses and come down and watch stars like Jonny Allen and Peter Tom. It was always a great way to introduce fans to the sport,” he recalls. “I remember back in ’69, Tigers were playing the Springboks during one of their tours and they used to come out of the tunnel at the clubhouse end. I used to say to myself, ‘I’d love to run out that tunnel one day’.”
Austin Healey is another in the line of great Leicester scrum-halves, albeit that the England international proved one of the most versatile talents of the pro era. He is one of only four men to play at least ten Leicester matches at both scrum-half and fly-half, and one of eight to play in four of the five backs positions.
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After Clive Woodward became the England coach, there was plenty of speculation about who he would appoint as captain. Healey approached him one day flourishing a newspaper. Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson were listed at odds of 2-1 to get the job.
“And look at me here,” said Healey, who was bottom of the list at 350-1. “I can scrape together £20,000. If you can match it, well, that’s £7,000,000 each! Just name me captain and we’re out of here!”
Man of the Match in both of Leicester’s European Cup victories, Healey is also part of a distinguished band of Tigers to have won the League/Premiership Player of the Season award. The list is Martin Johnson (1996-97, 1998-99), Neil Back (1997-98), Austin Healey (1999-2000), Pat Howard (2000-01), Martin Corry (2004-05), Martin Castrogiovanni (2006-07) and Tom Youngs (2012-13).
WHEN rugby resumed after World War One, Leicester embarked on an unprecedented run of 30 home games – all 19 matches in 1918-19 and the first nine games of the following season. Most of these were against service sides.
In the 1930s the stadium staged major boxing matches, including the British Empire heavyweight bouts won by Larry Gains and Jack Petersen, and the ‘sport of kings’ returned to Welford Road on two occasions in 2010.
In the summers of 1958 and 1959 the Harlem Globetrotters showed off their basketball skills at the ground. Ex-Tigers centre Mike Harrison, who made 210 appearances from 1962-71, says of that era: “My childhood memories of Welford Road are of coming here with my dad and brother and standing behind the posts on what was then a cinder bank. I enjoyed watching the game from the ends as you can see the patterns of play much better than the sides.”
Tennis has also featured at Welford Road. Pat Cash and Ilie Nastase played a doubles match against Peter Fleming and Andrew Castle in June 2006, when a court was cut into the pitch.
WING Jonah Holmes, a summer signing from Yorkshire Carnegie, and Tonga full-back Atieli Pakalani will make their Leicester debut in Saturday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup tie with Gloucester (3pm).
Tigers also field academy graduates Harry Simmons (scrum-half) and Sam Lewis (flanker) for the first time, in a team captained by fly-half Joe Ford. On-loan Dan Tuohy is at lock alongside Harry Wells, who was an ever-present in the successful cup run last season.
“The league has been quite attritional this season, so this is a nice chance to blood some young players,” said Geordan Murphy, who takes charge of the team. “It also gives those who haven’t had much field time a chance to play and they’re all excited to be involved.
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“It’s a big game, it’s at home, it’s Gloucester, who have been in decent form and have already won away from home in the league and in Europe this season. So it’s for us to put on a performance to represent the Leicester shirt with pride and passion.”