Almost four years have passed since Tom Croft announced his retirement from professional rugby, but the former England flanker still bristles with pride when it comes to discussing his Leicester Tigers.
It's little wonder why considering the club's rampant start to the 2021/22 Premiership campaign, leading with a perfect return of six wins from six ahead of Saturday's east midlands derby away to Northampton Saints.
That stellar run has included hard-fought victories over Saracens, London Irish and most recently Sale Sharks, fixtures Croft believes "the Leicester team of two or three years ago would have lost."
"In all honesty I think it’s a product of what has happened in the last five, six years," the two-time British and Irish Lions tourist told Mirror Sport.
"It’s been pretty dire in terms of where Leicester were originally, from being in nine straight Premiership finals (2005-13) to floundering at the bottom, and if Sarries hadn’t had their issues [being relegated for multiple salary cap breaches in 2020], we might have potentially been relegated."
Croft—who was part of four Premiership-winning Leicester teams, including their most recent title triumph in 2013—says a lot of "papering over cracks" has taken place in the years since they last finished at England's peak.
But the 40-cap former England talisman conceded there were issues that needed solving even prior to beating Saturday's opponents, Northampton, in that 2013 decider, which director of rugby Steve Borthwick has helped to address.
"You always laugh at people who say: ‘Write Leicester off now, they’ve had their time’," he added.
"It was always a matter of time until this team just gelled, and with Steve there, he’s changed the processes, how they’re training, the amount of time they spend on the pitch, the intensity. So he’s put his stamp on the team.
"But you can still see that traditional Leicester DNA…you know, London Irish away [a 21-16 win], Sarries [13-12 win], the game against Sale [19-11 win]. The Leicester team of two or three years ago would have lost those games.
"The fact that Leicester DNA is bubbling back to the surface is because we won those games and you’ve got confidence as a fan sitting in the stand that, with 10 minutes to go you could be six points behind, you’re still confident you’re gonna win.
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"And that’s what Leicester was when I was coming through, and hopefully it’s heading that way.”
Croft, 35, described Borthwick as a "very astute, intelligent man," whose task in turning around Leicester's fortunes is comparable to when he joined Eddie Jones's set-up as England forwards coach in 2015.
Yet it's a case of less control—not more—that's been essential to the Tigers' recent success, as Croft highlighted the freedom afforded to players like George Ford as being vital to growth.
"Even young players like Freddie Steward, who’s playing because he’s been given almost free rein and the confidence to go and do what he does, and that’s the best thing for a player to improve," said Croft, who debuted for Leicester just after turning 20 and spent his entire 12-year career at Welford Road.
The former flanker—famed for his turn of pace rarely seen among forwards— was forced to retire prematurely but is revelling in his post-playing career as a land manager for developer Davidsons Homes.
Former England lock Borthwick will undergo arguably the biggest threat to Leicester's unbeaten streak so far when they visit Franklin's Gardens.
The Saints are coming off the back of a 66-10 hammering of Worcester Warriors last Friday, when 12-times capped South Africa winger Courtnall Skosan scored a hat-trick of tries on his debut.
Northampton full-back and ex-Leicester academy prospect Tommy Freeman also contributed two second-half scores following his first call-up to England's squad for games against Tonga, Australia and South Africa.
There, he'll contend with Leicester counterpart and fellow 20-year-old talent Steward for the Red Rose's No. 15 jersey, a battle Croft believes would have set the tone on Saturday were it not for their England commitments.
Both teams will have stars unavailable with November's international slate imminent, players like Tigers hooker Nic Dolly, whom Croft dubbed "amazing" since his arrival earlier in 2021.
"When I first saw him [Dolly] play, I was thinking ‘What’s going on with your hair?'" he joked. "A bit of jealousy because mine’s disappearing, but then he goes and scores two tries on his first start for the club and has obviously continued in that vein.
“Guys like Harry Potter, bar having the most exceptional name which blows my kids’ minds every time they see he’s on TV scoring tries.
“The back row of [Hanro] Liebenberg, [Marco] van Staden and [Jasper] Wiese, you see that on the team sheet and I get excited now.
“I’ve gotten over having to retire, I’m happy with what I’m doing now with work so I’ve got that ability to become a fan. So when you see those guys on the team sheet, as a back-row player you get excited, and I actually wish I could have played with them."
Croft also picked out 20-year-old scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, who was "unlucky not to be included in the England set-up," and "proper club man" Harry Wells—who made his England debut in July aged 27—as symbols of Leicester's newfound depth.
Having those 'secondary' stars available is critical when international duty comes calling, although Tigers fly-half Ford has looked anything but second rate in the early rounds of this Premiership season.
While many were stunned to see Vunipola brothers Billy and Mako omitted from Jones' latest England squad, the absence of in-form Ford was considered by others to be the most glaring.
However, given the apparent contest for England's 10 jersey that is set to unfold between Marcus Smith and captain Owen Farrell, Croft sees it as a silver lining that Borthwick will keep his star playmaker.
"I’m not actually too fussed because it means Fordy will stay at Leicester during the international periods, and for me, Leicester will always be my bread and butter as a fan," said Croft, who remains a regular in the stands at his old stomping ground.
“Obviously I watch England with great pleasure, but for Leicester, knowing he’s going to be there—it may change during the Six Nations —but in the autumn, we’ve got a guy there alongside Freddie Burns steering the ship, which is brilliant for the club."
For now, though, the fight for England's fly-half duties looks like a straight toss-up between Saracens shot-caller Farrell and Smith, who guided Harlequins to a wildly unexpected Premiership title last term.
World Cup -winning coach Sir Clive Woodward recently railed against rumours suggesting Farrell could move back to inside centre in order to accommodate Smith, though Croft isn't sure the latter requires the help.
“It’d be great to see Marcus Smith," he said. "I’m no connoisseur [of fly-halves] and focus on the forwards predominantly, but we’ve seen what Marcus is doing at Harlequins at the moment, he’s an exciting player.
“Whether starting Farrell outside him would act as a bit of a comfort, but to be fair, I think Marcus is perfectly capable of steering the international ship, and I don’t think he necessarily needs him there.
“Who knows what Eddie will do? I would like to see Marcus there, even if it was Australia for the first Test, I’d still like to see Marcus given his shot. . .it would be nice to see him there regardless of who we play first—obviously it is Tonga, but if he plays well, there’s no reason not to start him against South Africa or Australia."
Croft underlined familiarity as "the biggest thing that causes success for a club," so using the clash against Tonga on November 6 is a grand opportunity to get settled with any new-look line-up.
The Pacific Island nation should by no means be viewed as easy prey or a chance to experiment, however, a stance Croft considers "a bit disrespectful," and the kind of viewpoint that leads to surprise results.
“Looking at it from the other side of the coin, Tonga are more than capable of coming to Twickenham and putting on a performance and causing a massive upset," he warned.
“We’ve seen it many times with Japan [beating South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup], for example, causing upsets where they’re playing against a perceived Tier 1 team and rock the boat. Imagine if that happened!”
A full complement of five Leicester players will be in England's squad attempting to ensure that isn't the case, making the Premiership leaders the most heavily represented club at Jones' disposal.
That in itself is a "direct reflection," Croft argues, of the strides Borthwick and his players have made as the Tigers return to the top, ready to once again rule the roost at both club level and in the international arena.
BT Sport is the home of Gallagher Premiership Rugby. The 2021/22 season continues with a weekend full of games, including Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints live on BT Sport 1 at 3pm on Saturday 30th October. Find out more information on how to watch at BT Sport bt.com/sport .
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