Comparing different sides from two wildly different eras, nearly 40 years apart and straddling the shift from amateurism to professionalism, is never easy. Yet Ian Smith, the captain of Leicester Tigers for the 1983-84 season that began with 16 straight wins – a record Steve Borthwick’s side will hope to match on Sunday – sums it up well.
“When we played we wanted to win every game,” says Smith, who made 331 appearances for Leicester. “When they play now they have to win every game because if they don’t it’s P45.”
Smith is better placed to pass judgment on the two sides than most, having been part of the Leicester fabric for the best part of 30 years as a player and coach – as he says: “I’ve had more job titles than you could poke a stick at.” His son, Matt, made 228 appearances for Leicester and is now one of Borthwick’s assistants, and Smith Sr still pops along to cast his eye over training every now and then.
There is another obvious difference for Smith: “We thought we were cosmopolitan because Les Cusworth came from Yorkshire and Dusty Hare from Nottingham.” But there are traits of Borthwick’s side that remind him of yesteryear. The chairman, Peter Tom, recently remarked to Smith that the current crop were closing in on his record but no one would be happier to see it matched against Wasps – the side who snapped the 1983-84 run.
That season was Smith’s first as captain and Graham Willars’ as coach. Smith was part of a formidable back row featuring John Wells and a 20-year-old Dean Richards, who “could turn the game in the blink of an eye. He had this uncanny knack, he was never the quickest man but he always seemed to be where the ball was. I’d say to him: ‘Have you worked out some secret tunnels under the pitch?!?’”
And there was star quality littered throughout the backline. At scrum-half was Nick Youngs – father of Tom and Ben – Cusworth was at fly-half, Clive Woodward and Paul Dodge occupied the midfield while Hare was point after point from full-back and a young Rory Underwood was breaking through on the wing.
Two things immediately spring to mind when Smith casts his mind back. First was how the 16-match winning run included 41-3 and 29-24 victories over Cardiff and Swansea respectively at a time when “you never beat the Welsh, just scored more points than them”. The other was a rare clanger from Woodward in a cup final. “It became infamous because Clive Woodward did what was commonly referred to as his Devon Loch – he was clear to score, nobody near him and he fell over. It would have won the game.”
Woodward was, however, one of six Leicester players – with Youngs, Dodge, Cusworth, Hare and the national captain, Peter Wheeler – who that November beat the All Blacks twice in the space of 10 days, once with the Midlands and again with England, in a further measure of the quality in the Tigers ranks at the time.
“I don’t think those boys have ever been given the credit they deserve for those memorable victories,” says Smith. “We had some real characters in the team. Peter Wheeler was a big part of England’s grand slam success in 1980 with Paul, which was the year of our centenary tour in 1980 to Australia and Fiji. All the work that Chalkie [White, coach from 1968-83] had done laid a massive foundation.”
It soon becomes clear that above anything else, Smith most values the friendships made during that time, the bonds forged and though the professionalism has changed much about the club, under Borthwick he sees similarities with the past.
“I see the way the boys have responded to the new regime,” adds Smith. “I’ve been in a few times and watched a few sessions and seen what they’re trying to achieve. It is amazing that these players have responded in such a way. People come and go, and it’s a professional game and people are paid a lot of money. I thought Matt would be the last one-club man but we’ve still got Ben Youngs and Tom Youngs and Dan Cole who are contemporaries of Matt, they hopefully will finish as one-club men and that is an absolute rarity in the current game.
“Look at the Saracens game, look at the Bristol game, look at the five-point try against Newcastle. Those moments are only born out of, not being paid an extra few quid, but an inner strength and a friendship, and a desire to reach something Leicester haven’t been able to do for a while.
“The hallmark of Leicester is being able to win without playing particularly well and that gives you a five-point start because the opposition are thinking: ‘Oh crikey, it’s Leicester.’ Throughout Tigers history that has been the case.”
It will come as no surprise that Borthwick has given short shrift to any talk of records. He was part of Eddie Jones’s coaching staff when England equalled the international record of 18 straight wins – a streak that slowly but surely became an albatross around the necks of the players.
Indeed, Jones has recalled how “a small part of me was glad the run was over” when it ended. For Smith, however, it could be just the start. “As I say to players now, the most important pages in history aren’t those that have been written, they are the ones you are going to write and I sincerely hope that these boys write themselves into the history books by breaking the record, doing well for the rest of the season, more of them getting international recognition and it continues long into the future. There’ll be no one cheering them on louder than me and hopefully they break the record and set one that will never be beaten.”