When head coach Steve Borthwick approached Hanro Liebenberg to ask him to be Leicester Tigers captain, he received a measured response.

“I said ‘I’m not a fiery character, I won’t get guys smashing their heads against the wall’,” said the 6ft 6in (1.98m), 17st 5lb (110kg) back-rower.

“But the players know who I am, what kind of player I am. You have to lead by example, that’s something I firmly believe in.”

Liebenberg was always going to be compared to his predecessor as Tigers skipper as he took over before a new season.

England prop Ellis Genge is one of English rugby’s great current characters, a fiercely competitive, passionate and occasionally abrasive presence.

Those characteristics were symptomatic of Leicester’s title triumph last season, their first for nine years, and just two years after staring relegation in the face.

Genge and Liebenberg, captain and vice-captain respectively in that campaign, said themselves they were very different people. But Genge, the louder, feistier character, worked well with the more reflective South African.

“I learned a lot from Ellis, but we’re all different,” said Liebenberg. “There’s no recipe on how a captain should be”.

His quieter nature does not mean any authority is lost, but he is aware he needs louder characters in the dressing room on certain occasions.

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Liebenberg (right) was vice-captain in Leicester’s title-winning campaign, with Ellis Genge as captain

“I am looking to other guys to step in for me. I know we have the players that can help me do that,” added Liebenberg.

“It was a huge relief when Steve asked me [to be captain]. I told him that I will make mistakes, I will slip up, and I need to be held accountable when I do that.”

Completing the ‘underdog story’

Liebenberg has a fascinating insight into Tigers’ turnaround. He joined from South African side Bulls in 2019, at the height of their struggles. They had just finished 11th in the Premiership and, in his first season, were bottom until Saracens’ relegation for salary cap infringements.

He could not remember the glory days like experienced Leicester players such as England duo Dan Cole and Ben Youngs, but was not part of a new crop of exciting talent that came through under Borthwick either.

He was a vital and ever-present part of Tigers’ Premiership-winning campaign, a dependable player who can play across the back row. He also scored their first try of that memorable final win over Saracens.

“If someone told me we had made the transition from when I joined [to champions], I would have said there’s no chance,” added Liebenberg.

“What we as a team have achieved has been exceptional. It needs a whole club, the players and the staff, to buy into something.

“During the whole season, we had an underdog mentality. The sense of the weight lifting at the full-time whistle was incredible; we had completed the underdog story.”

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Liebenberg has made 59 appearances for the club since his debut in September 2019

Borthwick’s simple but powerful philosophy – being better every day – has had a profound effect on the players and staff at Mattioli Woods Welford Road. It is something Liebenberg says he and the rest of his team-mates believe in.

“Steve sets us challenges every day and every week”, said the 26-year-old. “If you have the focus of winning the Premiership, you will slip up. He tells us to focus on now.

“If you do your basics, improve by 1% every day, those big aims will sort themselves out.”

Tigers have ‘target on our backs’

Borthwick was full of praise for his new captain, who he described as “the obvious choice” for the role.

“In any leadership position, you need to play well and train well. He plays consistently at such a high level and trains at an incredible level,” said Borthwick.

“Then you look at his understanding of the game, the influence he has over the other players, and the relationships he has. He’s brilliant at all of that.”

Now Leicester have to go about defending their title. For those who have followed Tigers in recent years, it is unsurprising that is not being discussed ahead of their season opener against Exeter on 10 September.

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Leicester begin their title defence against Exeter on 10 September

“We’ll have a target on our backs, but we still have that underdog mentality,” said Liebenberg.

“People will tell us it was by chance, it was a one-off. We want that, we will just go about our business, work every week and hopefully have those memories again.”

It will be a challenge for Liebenberg, just the second non-English captain in Leicester’s history, to repeat last year’s heroics.

The prestige of being club captain is not lost on him, but he does not find it daunting.

“Sometimes there is an added weight on my shoulder,” he added. “There are so many great captains this club has had. If only I can leave this club in a better place, I will be a happy man.”

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