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Challenge Cup final: Leicester Tigers take on Montpellier as they bid to end 19-year wait for European silverware
Watch the final of the Challenge Cup live and exclusive on BT Sport as Leicester Tigers and Montpellier do battle at Twickenham
It may not be the European stage they are used to, but Friday night's Challenge Cup final represents a significant milestone in the reconstruction of Leicester Tigers.
With such a rich and decorated history, the East Midlands club is widely regarded as one of the most famous names in the sport, but English rugby's most iconic institution has fallen into disrepair in recent years.
No club dominated the early years of professionalism like the Tigers. Between 1999 and 2013 they won eight Premiership titles and became the first team ever to win back-to-back Heineken Champions Cups.
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Leicester Tigers v Montpellier - 7pm
Between 2005 and 2013, the Tigers reached nine consecutive Premiership finals, reaching the play-offs in 13 of the last 16 seasons.
From Austin Healey, Martin Johnson and Ben Kay to Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi and the Youngs brothers, the club has been a conveyor belt for young English talent for the past two decades.
But in recent years the famous old club has been in decline. For a club more used to competing at the top of the table each year, the Tigers have twice come close to dropping out of the league altogether.
Ill-fated reigns at the helm for Mike Ford and then Geordan Murphy and the departure of big-name stars like Tuilagi, Jordan Taufua and Telusa Veainu contrived to leave the club on brink of crisis, but the club has turned over a new leaf since the arrival of ex-England lock Steve Borthwick.
When Borthwick was appointed head coach in January 2020, the Tigers were sitting in 11th in the Gallagher Premiership and battling relegation after ending the previous season in the same position.
Leicester Tigers v Montpellier
Friday 21 May, 7pm - Live stream
TV: BT Sport 2HD & BT Sport Ultimate
Fast forward 18 months and the Tigers are fighting for the top six in the Premiership and on the cusp of their first piece of European silverware since 2002.
The Premiership outfit could become the fifth club in the history of European competition – after Bath Rugby, Leinster Rugby, Northampton Saints and Wasps – to complete the coveted double of European Cup and Challenge Cup.
Having defeated Brive, Bayonne, Connacht Rugby, Newcastle Falcons and Ulster Rugby on their journey to date, the Tigers will be eager to add one further French scalp to their tournament tally.
“This tournament has been a massive experience for the squad,” said club captain Tom Youngs. “We hadn’t won in France for a long time before we went to Bayonne and that was huge for the guys.
"James Whitcombe made his debut there, others had their first European rugby experience.
"It was a fantastic effort especially for guys with limited experience, but when we got back into Oval Park there was no getting ahead of ourselves. There is still a lot of work to do.
“We’d never played against Connacht, then we had Ulster at home in the semi-final, they are all massive experiences."
Youngs was at pains to point out Montpellier’s recent domestic success ahead of their Twickenham showdown.
Despite losing to Stade Francais in their most recent Top 14 outing, the French outfit have recorded victories over Clermont, Toulon, Toulouse and Champions Cup finalists La Rochelle since March.
“Montpellier have a great squad,” he added. “They are a very good side, they’re not in the final for no reason.
“They beat Toulouse the other week who are having a very good season and it will be a massive challenge, but we are looking forward to it. And it will be great to have some fans there, you miss that buzz around the game.”
Leicester's opponents have already seen off English opposition en route to Twickenham having produced an epic defensive display in the semi-finals to overcome Bath.
The French giants dropped into the Challenge Cup from the Champions Cup and have not looked back since, beating Glasgow Warriors and Benetton on their way to the final.
Montpellier have two-time Challenge Cup winner Olivier Azam on their coaching staff. The former Gloucester claimed his first winners’ medal with Clermont Auvergne back in 1999 before winning the competition in 2006 with the Cherry and Whites.
Flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo, scrum-half Benoit Paillaugue, lock Paul Willemse and hooker Bismarck du Plessis, who featured in Montpellier’s 2016 success, will be aiming to emulate Azam at Twickenham.
Another intriguing sub-plot to the final sees ex-Saracens team-mates Richard Wigglesworth and Alex Lozowski face-off.
The pair played instrumental roles in Saracens' 2019 Champions Cup final win over Leinster and both will be out to add a first Challenge Cup winners' medal to their collection.
Wiggelsworth, 37, holds the record for the most appearances in Premiership history and his big-game experience has provided the perfect tonic to Leicester's up-and-coming core of young talent.
Full-back Freddie Steward, who turned 20 in December, and lock George Martin (19) are now regular fixtures in Leicester’s starting XV, while lock Cameron Henderson (21) and centre Dan Kelly (19) have both made significant contributions to Leicester's campaign.
With so much to look forward to, Friday night could mark the start of Leicester's re-birth as a titan of European rugby.