George Ford has hailed Leicester’s young guns as the Tigers close in on a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final place.
It is six years since Leicester, European champions in 2001 and 2002, have reached the tournament’s last-eight stage.
But a memorable 29-10 away victory over French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne last weekend means that Ford and company are red-hot favorites to finish the round of 16 job in Saturday’s second leg at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
While the likes of Ford, his half-back partner Ben Youngs and skipper Ellis Genge have showcased their international experience during an impressive European run, Tigers’ new crop of talent can also reflect on making a significant contribution.
Players such as Freddie Steward, Dan Kelly, Jack van Poortvliet and Ollie Chessum – all 21 or younger – are key parts of Leicester’s resurgence under head coach Steve Borthwick.
Steward, Kelly and Chessum have also featured for England during Borthwick’s reign, and played important roles in Tigers’ march to the Gallagher Premiership play-offs.
“They are a great bunch of young lads,” Ford said. “The one thing that makes them stand out the most is the attitude they have got.
“It is the way they go about preparing, trying to improve physically, trying to improve mentally, the questions they ask and just their general attitude.
“Even though things have gone well for them and the team up to this point, they haven’t got ahead of themselves.
“I haven’t seen one little bit or inkling of them getting ahead of themselves, and that is the biggest thing I can say about them because that is unbelievably important and it will be throughout their whole careers.
“We’ve all got great relationships, to be honest, but it is refreshing how eager these guys are to learn.
“I’ve got to say I have never seen a young group like it – all of them, to a man. I am sure they will carry on like that, and that is the biggest compliment I can pay them.”
Youngs, England’s all-time record cap holder, has proven an influential figure in Van Poortvliet’s development and continues to starring for club and country, but Ford added: “Ben doesn’t get the respect he deserves, if I am honest with you.
“He is the record holder for the amount of England caps, he still plays to the top of his game week in, week out, and he is an unbelievable guy to play (alongside).
“Ben is not the type of guy who needs people telling him how good he is every day. He is up there with the very best scrum-halves I have played with.
“I just think the consistency that he has shown to do it at the top level for that many years is unbelievable. I don’t think people will realize that until maybe Ben stops playing.”
Four-time European champions Leinster are Leicester’s likely quarter-final opponents if Tigers see off Clermont, which would be another huge day under Borthwick, who has transformed the club since taking charge less than two years ago.
He inherited a squad that only avoided relegation in 2020 because Saracens were demoted for repeated salary cap breaches, and it has provided a spectacular turnaround.
Ford, who will join Sale Sharks next season, said: “It is a lot of hard work. There is no secret formula – I wish I could tell you there was.
“It is doing the basics brilliantly well, it is coming into training with a mindset to improve week on week, and we have a clear identity of the way we want to play the game.
“When Steve heads it up in that way and makes it unbelievably clear, you can throw everything into it as a player and as a group of players to improve.”