Paul Gustard, Neil Back and Adam Balding were on the Leicester Tigers back row the last time they started a Premiership season with four consecutive victories.
Given the two sides would ultimately finish 70 points apart at the top and bottom of the 2000/1 table, a 26-18 midweek victory over Rotherham Titans in front of 9,801 fans at Welford Road wasn’t a vintage Leicester display.
But it maintained a winning start to a season that ultimately ended in Premiership and Heineken Cup glory.
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If Steve Borthwick’s class of 2021 are to emulate those illustrious achievements of two decades ago, they will have to perform much better than they did in Saturday’s 21-16 victory over London Irish.
However laboured and disjointed the performance may have been at the Brentford Community Stadium, Tigers found a way to win, which in itself is a characteristic of a champion team.
These are times supporters should quite rightly be embracing and enjoying. The last time Tigers visited this spectacular new stadium in south west London, fans were locked out as the Exiles deflated early optimism of the 2020/21 campaign following a resounding opening-round win over Gloucester.
That 22-9 loss was a display indicative of a rotten run on the road that would see 100 weeks pass without a victory away from home comforts.
How times have changed. Leicester’s route to a fourth straight win on the road, factoring the successes as Worcester Warriors and Wasps at the tail end of last term, started as they landed the game’s opening points after a cagy opening 20 minutes.
A rolling maul from a lineout appeared to have stalled after initially stomping from 10 metres to five metres out. After Ben Youngs initially appeared to try and snare the ball from Nic Dolly’s grasp, the scrum-half opted to latch onto the drive and propel the hooker to his fourth score of the campaign.
The second half of the first period saw London Irish twice go agonisingly close to crossing the line only for Nemani Nadolo to expertly hold up Matt Rogerson and Youngs swept gloriously to scoop up Ben Loader’s chip ahead with one hand on his own goalline.
Paddy Jackson’s brace of penalties was scant reward for the Exiles’ time in the 22, while Tigers’ scoring opportunities were spurned by an uncharacteristic George Ford penalty miss and a wicked bounce that denied Harry Potter from latching onto a delicate chip ahead.
Jackson’s third successful penalty six minutes after the restart opened a four-point lead that should’ve been wiped out when Youngs’ offload within reaching distance of the line somehow evaded the grasp of a teammate.
But an infringement in the build-up gave his side a second chance. With Julian Montoya and Marco van Staden adding some international pedigree from the bench, Leicester went to the corner. The route to the line was blocked by a brave home resistance. Step forward Hanro Liebenberg, who lowered his giant frame to gather from the base of the resulting ruck and pounce to score a poacher’s try Neil Back would’ve been proud of registering. Ford found his form from the tee with a tricky conversion to create a three-point lead.
An Argentine hooker would get on the scoresheet next, but it wasn’t Tigers’ returning star. From another rolling maul it was 36-year-old Agustin Creevy that used all of his experience to break off once George Martin had committed to the counter-drive to cross the line. Jackson’s extras put Exiles four points to the good with a third of the match remaining.
It wasn’t to be a momentum swing in the game. Ferocious defence, led by the powerful hits of Juan Pablo Socino, saw Tigers overcome the adversity of losing substitute Guy Porter to an injury that prompted a reshuffle in the backline.
Groans of ‘boring Leicester’ were plentiful amongst the home support as Ford found his range with an arsenal of testing kicks that were chased with earnest and, slowly but surely, gained their reward on a game of razor fine margins.
Edging that kicking battle established field position from which penalties were awarded that Ford punished with three successful efforts from the tee as the colour drained from the cheeks of the Exiles faithful.
The victory keeps Tigers top after four rounds ahead of their trip to Worcester Warriors, who are on a three-game losing run after being thumped by Exeter Chiefs. Win at Sixways, and Borthwick’s charges will emulate the five-game sequence that kicked off that glorious campaign 20 years ago.
At that stage, it will be almost impossible to stop long-suffering supporters believing that the good times are truly returning to Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
London Irish: T Parton; B Loader, C Rona, T Hepetema (B van Rensburg 55), O Hassell-Collins; P Jackson, N Phipps (H O’Sullivan 60); W Goodrick-Clarke (A Dell 53), A Creevy (M Cornish 63), M van der Merwe (O Hoskins 60), S Mafi (G Nott, 55), A Coleman (R Simmonds 60), M Rogerson, B Donnell, A Tuisue (S O’Brien 50).
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; H Potter, M Scott (G Porter 53 (F Burns 64)), JP Socino, N Nadolo; G Ford, B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 53); E Genge (N Leatigaga 60), N Dolly (J Montoya 48), D Cole (J Heyes 67), H Wells, C Green (E Snyman 60), G Martin, T Reffell (M van Staden 48), H Liebenberg.
Scores: 0-5 Dolly try, 3-5 Jackson pen, 6-5 Jackson pen, 9-5 Jackson pen, 9-10 Liebenberg try, 9-12 Ford con, 14-12 Creevy try, 16-12 Jackson con, 16-15 Ford pen, 16-18 Ford pen, 16-21 Ford pen.