Through the eye of a Tiger

As a celebrated Premiership rugby record-holder and six-time league champion, Richard Wigglesworth knows more than a little about competing at the pinnacle of elite sport. Following his move to Leicester Tigers last year, he helped to steer the club to Championship glory for the first time in nine years - a testament to his ability as a player coach and changemaker with a steely determination to succeed.

We spoke to him about keeping a level head through career highs and lows, inspiring a new generation of players and how his family has been a constant motivation both on and off the pitch. Sitting down for an interview with ‘Wiggy’, as his teammates more affectionately call him, it’s clear that he has always been a man with a plan. While he might be approaching an era when most professional players are considering their post-pitch options, Wigglesworth is already way ahead of the game. “I’ve always wanted to coach; from my mid-twenties I knew it was the direction I was going to take. I’ve experienced the frustrations of not being coached well and understand the importance of being motivated and challenged as a player, it’s about making that difference.” By his thirties, Wigglesworth had started to put his plans into motion, tirelessly coaching on his day off and seeking the counsel of players he had always respected. “I was lucky to have mentors I could talk to, like Mark Cueto, who advised me to play for as long as I could, and Jason Robinson offered some great direction on staying career-focused.

Having people like Andy Farrell and, of course, Steve Borthwick to call on, has also helped to steer my direction.” It’s evident that this early focus and experience as a player have positively shaped his coaching career. He already had six years’ experience under his belt through roles with Saracens, Ealing Trailfinders and Canada before joining Leicester Tigers’ senior coaching squad last season under Borthwick’s leadership.

“I always had my sights set on coaching alongside Steve,” he says. “As a successful player and coach, he’s a great boss to learn from. He understands the different qualities that each player brings to the pitch and knows how to get the best out of them for the right result.” It’s a formula that Wigglesworth clearly applies to the next generation of players. “You can’t just tell people what to do, it’s about encouraging them to be the best they can be and layering information so they’re armed with the right knowledge. Rugby is a very accepting game, we appreciate that the mix of the team is important and that everyone needs to work hard and pull together.”

As the most experienced player on the pitch, Wrigglesworth also appreciates how the sport has changed since he started his professional career. “During training, we never used to ask ‘why’, we just accepted that it was the right way and got on with it,” he explains. “Today’s players aren’t shy to speak up, and having that voice and intrigue met with knowledge is better for team performance,” he explains.

“While some things are out of your control, you can choose how you react to situations, that’s an outcome that’s within your power and can be applied to every walk of life.”

Another aspect of the game that’s changed is focusing on player mental health. “We have a saying in the senior squad that “nothing is neutral”, the way you’re feeling, either negative or positive, will play out on the pitch, and have a wider impact on the team. Rugby is a sport that’s very much played in the moment, so we check body language for cues on who might need help, and we’re not afraid to ask ‘are you okay’? Our training sessions are about performance on the pitch, but they’re also a chance for feedback and to deal with issues that could be affecting a player’s performance.”

Indeed, as a coach, Wigglesworth has quickly gained a reputation for having a unique ability to challenge new players while simultaneously welcoming them in.

For him, a role is hard-earned and the need to be respected is more important than being liked. “As a coach, you need to have difficult conversations.

Being blunt, challenging and, at times, difficult, comes with the territory. Only through a shared discipline can you make things come together on the pitch,” he explains. “It’s easy to be a back-slapper but it doesn’t get things done. You need doers, challengers and followers in every team. It’s a tough love approach but it gets the right result.”

Wigglesworth is only too aware that reaching the highs of professional rugby means enduring the lows on the way up. “I’ve experienced some really difficult moments. Being dropped for big games has felt disastrous and really challenged me emotionally. At the time, keeping a level head has been really hard, but stepping back and putting the team first has always helped – things always look better further down the track.” For a successful player with such a goal-oriented focus, it’s easy to understand why the blows fall particularly hard, but Wigglesworth is not one to mope; for him, it’s a case of learning and moving on. His candid insights provide reassurance to anyone coming through a career low that the highs aren’t necessarily out of reach. “It’s important to be proud of yourself and look forward – visualise your goal, where you want to be and how you’ll get there,” he explains.

“While some things are out of your control, you can choose how you react to situations, that’s an outcome that’s within your power and can be applied to many walks of life.” It’s sage advice that seems to have stood him in good stead throughout his illustrious career. “On the rugby pitch, it’s a learning experience that, ultimately makes you a better player.”

Discussing career highlights, it becomes crystal clear that Wigglesworth’s family is a huge driving force behind his success. He and his wife, Lindsay, are proud parents to two daughters, 12-year-old Matilda and Margot, three, and a son, Freddie, who, at the age of 10, is showing a keen interest in following in his father’s footsteps. “Leicester is very family-oriented, and Freddie is fast-gaining a reputation as a bit of a character within the club. He’s not afraid to ask questions during sessions – his advice can be spot on!”

This family pride is never more evident than when discussing Leicester’s epic triumph over Saracens to clinch the club’s first Premiership title since 2013. “Beating some of the best players in the Premiership was a moment of absolute pride and disbelief, and to have my family with me to share the moment was so special. My dad took this incredible picture of Freddie, wide-eyed, in amazement just after the drop-goal went over, which just says it all.”

He continues, “I want to be the best coach for Leicester and myself, but also my family; it’s important to me to be an equally successful husband and father. My family’s support and motivation is everything and sharing the victories makes the personal sacrifices worth it.” From our conversation, it’s evident that Wigglesworth doesn’t do things by half, a mindset that’s led to legendary status and success on the pitch and deep, hard-earned respect amongst his peers. Tellingly, Leicester Tigers doesn’t prescribe to a particular mantra or motto. “As a team, we want less writing on the walls – we want to live it, not say it”. An iconic player, revered coach and all-round good guy, he’s arguably leading by example and is one Tiger who’s certainly earned his stripes.