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Revealed: Dan McKellar lost confidence of Leicester senior players which led to exit

Dan McKellar
Dan McKellar recognised after a team meeting that he could not continue as Leicester Tigers head coach and told the board such - Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images

Two days after Leicester Tigers confirmed Dan McKellar’s shock departure, with Michael Cheika poised to replace his compatriot, Telegraph Sport can reveal the chain of events that led to another head coach leaving the club.

The widespread surprise at McKellar moving on, which has turned to exasperation in some circles, regards the timing of the announcement after the story was broken by Telegraph Sport. It is understood that staff were told of McKellar’s exit late last Friday, June 21. Eight days previously, on June 13, Leicester had issued a statement confirming their coaching group for 2024-25, with Peter Hewat, a former Brumbies colleague and quite obviously a McKellar ally, formally unveiled as attack coach.

A meeting of senior players at the end of May, in the week of the Premiership semi-finals, is thought to have been the catalyst for change, however. McKellar attended, along with other Oval Park executives. Although Tigers had marked their final fixture with a 40-22 win over Exeter Chiefs, one source described the sentiment as unambiguous: “It would have been clear and obvious that players were not confident in Dan.”

McKellar is thought to have discerned the same, and relayed as much back to Tigers top brass. He did not feel he could continue, and a pay-out has been negotiated.

McKellar’s exit has reminded supporters of the bad old days before Steve Borthwick turned the tanker. Barring any hitches that derail the appointment, and accounting for caretakers, Cheika will become the 13th man to oversee the first-team since 2004.

Peter Hewat
Peter Hewat, the former London Irish wing, has only just joined Leicester as attack coach - Tom Shaw/Getty Images

That period includes the eight-year tenure of Richard Cockerill, who finished up in 2017. Aaron Mauger assumed responsibility from there, with Matt O’Connor, Geordan Murphy, Borthwick, Richard Wigglesworth and McKellar following suit within seven seasons. “Carnage” is how one source described it.

McKellar’s sole campaign in charge was muddled as far as philosophy and underwhelming in terms of results. Leicester finished eighth in a 10-team Premiership, winning nine league matches and losing nine more. Only Gloucester, who beat them at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, and Newcastle Falcons were beneath the 2022 champions.

Back in March, Tigers needed an epic defensive stand to deny what would have been Newcastle’s sole victory of the Premiership campaign. Even accounting for the immensely competitive nature of the league, insiders were hugely disappointed. Headlined by Handré Pollard, Jasper Wiese and Julián Montoya with a core of England internationals and other shrewd signings, the squad was regarded by insiders as “comfortably good enough to make the top four”.

That suggested that dissenters among the fan base would be disappointed, and that McKellar would be staying on. Instead, he is gone, with reports in Australia already linking him to the vacant Waratahs job.

‘A season blighted by flip-flopping over attack coach’

It followed a season blighted by what a source called “flip-flopping” on an admittedly difficult situation. Alan Dickens, a newly arrived attack coach, was placed on a leave of absence by Leicester last year. McKellar is understood to have been offered additional, experienced support – even if, for legal reasons, any recruit would need to have a different job title.

There is recent precedent for this. Danny Wilson joined Leicester as a ‘part-time consultant’ in January 2023 upon the ascension of Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield to the England set-up. Mike Ford initially joined Murphy’s backroom staff with a similar title to help fight relegation in 2019.

Rather than accept that option, McKellar promoted Matt Smith from an academy position and aimed to rely on players like Pollard to direct matters. Leicester’s attack failed to convince. While they conceded the joint-fewest tries across the Premiership season, level with Sale Sharks on 51, fluency remained largely elusive.

McKellar later admitted that the curious Dickens issue had compromised him. It also delayed the official unveiling of Hewat, who needed to serve a lengthy notice period with Ricoh Black Rams in Japan. Trading a head coach position there, Hewat is thought to be energised by the challenge that awaits at Leicester.

Previous regimes cast a long shadow for McKellar. Borthwick exuded clarity and expertise, with Wigglesworth and Walters immensely popular. McKellar, conversely, did not lead as many meetings as Borthwick and Wigglesworth had done, causing one source to suggest that “he was a director of rugby rather than a head coach”, which brings us to Cheika.

Michael Cheika
Leicester admire Cheika's grit and competitive fire - AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

The 57-year-old’s combative nature is known to appeal to Tigers and he was on Leicester’s shortlist in the tricky, pre-World Cup window that they had to source a long-term replacement for Borthwick. Cheika boasts vast experience at club and provincial level, both in Europe with Stade Français and Leinster and in the southern hemisphere with the New South Wales Waratahs, whom he led to the Super Rugby title in 2014.

He shares a close, captain-coach relationship with Montoya, the pair having reached last year’s World Cup semi-finals together with Argentina. Prior to that, the Pumas won at Twickenham and beat the All Blacks in Christchurch under his watch.

Cheika would doubtlessly add colour and intrigue to the Premiership. Thrust into more turbulence, Leicester Tigers need a robust figurehead.

Elsewhere at Leicester, Ollie Richardson did not last as a successor for Aled Walters at the top of the conditioning department, with McKellar ruing a lack of fitness. In the same briefing that told of Hewat’s appointment, it was outlined that Smith would return to the post of skills and academy coach and that Matt Parr would be back as the head of athletic performance.