Leicester Tigers have confirmed that Matt O’Connor will return to the club as head coach to replace Aaron Mauger, who will leave the club after the East Midlands derby against Northampton on Saturday.
Mauger was placed in sole charge of Leicester after Richard Cockerill’s eight-year tenure as director of rugby came to an end in January, but will also exit Welford Road just a week after winning the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the club’s first trophy in four years.
His departure was unexpected and unpopular among supporters and players. Telusa Veainu, the Leicester back, tweeted: “With 5 games to go, really?? We don't know how good we've got it! #biggerpicture #gutted” Mike Williams, the lock, also tweeted “we’ve lost a good man” alongside a picture of Mauger holding the Anglo-Welsh Cup .
— Telusa Veainu (@tveainu) March 20, 2017
A key reason behind O’Connor’s appointment was the success Leicester enjoyed in his first spell at the club in which they won three Premiership titles and reached a Heineken Cup final.
“We are delighted that Matt O'Connor has accepted an offer to return to Welford Road,” Peter Tom, the Leicester chairman, said. “The club has conducted an exhaustive search to find who we feel is the right person to take the team forward and this brought up the names of a number of potentially very good coaches. One of the most significant factors in our deliberations was experience of the Premiership and what it takes to win the competition.
“While preparing to welcome Matt, we are also disappointed to lose Aaron. Matt's strengths are in his work with players on the training pitch and we are making changes to our organisational structure to enable him to focus solely on the success of the team.
“We thank Aaron for his commitment to the club over the last two seasons as head coach and especially in his time in interim charge of team affairs in recent months. We wish him well for the future.”
It would seem that there was too much overlap between the skillsets of O’Connor and Mauger, who both primarily focus on coaching the attack. Mauger, a former All Blacks centre, was brought in to liven up a back division that had foundered since O’Connor’s departure in 2013. Leicester had finished atop the try-scoring charts in four seasons out of five under O’Connor.
Although the club will not confirm whether a director of rugby is still been sought, O’Connor will be considered the main man and be granted the key responsibilities on the playing side of the club. After leaving Leicester, O’Connor took over at Irish province Leinster, but was sacked after two seasons when the team missed out on a PRO12 play-off place.
The idea that Mike Ford, the former Bath director of rugby, could join the club are wide of the mark. Toulon on Monday confirmed that he will be leaving the Top 14 club at the end of the season saying in a statement that he “wishes to commit himself to another project from next summer.” However it is understood that Ford has no role lined up despite potential vacancies at Gloucester and Leicester.
With just five league games remaining, Leicester are in fifth place having never previously failed to qualify for the Premiership play-offs. In his final match in charge, Mauger will have the opportunity to inflict a knockout blow to Northampton’s own play-off chances. The Saints are a further three points behind Leicester in sixth place.
It is clear that the usually feisty occasion of an East Midlands derby will be tinged with sadness for Leicester’s players and and supporters. “It is disappointing that Mage is leaving the club,” Tom Youngs, the club captain, said. “He's a good man and a good rugby man who has worked very hard as head coach over the last couple of seasons and goes with our best wishes.”