Leicester Tigers: Steve Borthwick faces challenging times at Welford Road

By Chris Egerton and Adam WhittyBBC Radio Leicester Sport
Manu Tuilagi
Manu Tuilagi is one of at least five players to have left Leicester Tigers in a wage cut row

A global pandemic is hitting the club and your sport hard. Some of your star players left the previous day in a contract dispute. All of it has been played out publicly in the press.

Welcome to Steve Borthwick's first day at Leicester Tigers.

An extraordinary week means at least five key players are set to leave, including England and British and Irish Lions centre Manu Tuilagi.

How did it come to this and where does the club go from here?

Tigers 'ultimatum'

When the Premiership had just been suspended because of coronavirus, Tigers chairman Peter Tom announced all staff were being asked to take a temporary pay cut of 25%.

The club has lost £5m in revenue as a result of the pandemic, and if there are no fans at Welford Road by January, that figure will double. Chief executive Andrea Pinchen told in-house media on Wednesday they would need to "make some big cuts, which were primarily wrapped up in players' salaries".

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick left the England setup to join Tigers on 1 July

Big names at board level had already gone. Previous chief executive Simon Cohen was one of 31 redundancies across the business.

As Pinchen described: "The players were asked, for the 2020-21 season only, to take a 25% pay cut, with a chance to claw back half of the money later down the line, and sign an agreement to say they wouldn't reserve their [legal] rights."

The club issued an ultimatum to sign the deals on Tuesday - or move on. The vast majority did sign on the dotted line, many with contract extensions.

But some, as captain Tom Youngs said last week, "had some questions" and it is understood these had been longstanding. Some on mostly one- or two-year contracts wanted something in return and some were perceived to be refusing point-blank to cut their wages, while being sympathetic to the club's plight.

Others players doubted the club's ability to make profits in the near future, but the main sticking point was the players' legal rights to potentially sue for loss of earnings at the end of their contract.

The deadline passed with six players still holding out: Tuilagi and fellow centres Kyle Eastmond and Noel Reid, prop Greg Bateman, back-row forward Jordan Taufua and full-back Telusa Veainu.

To put this into context, Tigers had lost three of their biggest stars, their starting outside centre, number eight, and full-back, as well as three more key squad players.

"Some were offered contracts that weren't acceptable to them," Pinchen said. "Others chose to not come on board with the cuts."

Six players leaving
The club have confirmed that Telusa Veainu, Noel Reid, Manu Tuilagi, Greg Bateman and Kyle Eastmond have left, but the future of Jordan Taufua (top right), is unknown

A complex situation for Tuilagi

So what now?

After barbed comments on social media, expect Veainu to have good offers for big deals in France or Japan. Taufua will not lack suitors either. The popular Bateman is likely to have offers too, while a return to Ireland seems likeliest for Reid.

Tuilagi's options are more complex and put his international future in doubt.

The outside centre is Tigers' poster boy, part of a family dynasty at Welford Road that has lasted two decades, and involved five other relatives.

A cut-price deal to keep him in the Premiership is not impossible, particularly if he sues Leicester for loss of earnings. You can be sure England boss Eddie Jones will be determined to persuade Tuilagi to remain in the Premiership, or even make up and stay at Welford Road. The longer this goes on, the more unlikely that appears. But it is not impossible.

Tigers are not amused by the fact this has played out in public, and Pinchen said Leicester would be setting up a "code of conduct" to stop the leaks.

Despite the biggest supporter base in the Premiership and a still impressive commercial operation, Tigers are second from bottom in the table, where they finished last season.

While other Premiership clubs are believed to be encountering similar disagreements, the media storm has not enveloped them. Yet.

'New start'

Leicester Tigers director of rugby Geordan Murphy
Geordan Murphy made his Tigers debut in 1997 and has been with the club in various roles since

But there is hope of a new start. To that end, we return to Borthwick, and his incredible first day as head coach.

Tigers now have a stellar coaching staff, including Geordan Murphy as director of rugby and Aled Walters, the man who made South Africa a fit and physical force at the 2019 World Cup, leading their strength and conditioning.

All of them face the challenge of binding this squad of players back together after such a protracted period of negotiation.

"Our strategy was that any negativity we needed to deal with would be out of the way by 1 July," said Pinchen.

All the players leaving have plenty of appearances under their belt, so this may mean Murphy and Borthwick have to focus more on their academy talent, and young new signings.

Murphy has spoken of bringing through academy products and local players who "have an association with the club and Leicester as a city". And with three academy league titles on the trot, the talent is there to utilise.

Pinchen hinted at more signings to fill the gap, and many are excited about the thought of Fijian star Nemani Nadolo powering down the wing at Welford Road.

Borthwick has a huge challenge now. But he will bring his international experience, an incredible attention to detail, his renowned work ethic, and a lineout ladder too.

But it is unlikely he will forget that first day any time soon.

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