Tigers face a disrupted start to the season after losing influential Head Coach Matt O’Conner to Leinster and Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill facing 7 matches banned from contact with the team on match days.
In place of Matt O’Conner former A-Team, kicking, backs coach and generally troubleshooter/dogsbody Paul Burke steps up to be solely focused on the first team backs; with former club captain Geordan Murphy hanging up the boots at the end of last season he moves into Burke’s old role as assistant backs coach.
Looking after the forwards on a match day will be Richard Blaze. Blaze was a promising second row, originally from Moseley, who had to retire after never recovering from a broken bone in the foot. With the likes of Louis Deacon, Geoff Parling and Dan Cole on hand the forwards should not lack experience of how to prepare for big matches even without Cockerill.
Tigers have run a tight coaching ship in recent years, carrying only the 4 coaches, and this is the first change to the coaching panel since Heyneke Meyer’s forced return home and Cockerill’s ascension in January 2009.
Over the summer Cockerill has been downplaying any potential disruption; but then he would, wouldn’t he? The potential for problems, especially in the Heineken Cup group games, is massive. Even with teams of analysts and the support of the other coaches the decisions of when to listen to them, what to pass on to players, when to make substitutions, when to change tactics and many more is a lot harder than it looks.
It is a big ask for Burke to step into the decision making role, not as his own man, with his neck on the line, but as a stand in constantly with the thought “What would Cockerill do?” in the back of his mind.
In the league with 17 other games to catch up any poor form, and frankly much lower standard of opposition, it is not so much of a worry and a good opportunity to test out the younger coaches. But a loss against Ulster, or even worse an ever improving Treviso, could kibosh our European dream before it has even begun.
Away from match days Cockerill’s influence might be bigger than ever. He and Matt O’Conner have been such a double act that for most of the Rugby World it has been impossible to tell their decisions apart.
Was it Cockerill or O’Conner who preferred Anthony Allen over Billy Twelvetrees? Was it Cockerill or O’Conner who preferred to keep the starters going and not use the bench? Was it Cockerill or O’Conner who preferred to kick for touch and rack up the tries against poorer opponents, particularly at home?
Cockerill was the man who defended these decisions to the TV companies so was widely given the blame/praise for the different calls but Matt O’Conner was his senior confidant especially on matters relating to the backs. He would have had a very significant say even though Cockerill did make the final call.
Burke will now have a greater voice in training, tactics and selection; after his spell in charge of the A team we could well see more of the young players given a chance as he is more au fait with their talents. But will he be as good a motivator as the passionate Aussie, or as good selector? Only time will tell.
Who has been responsible for the defence has always been a bit of a secret between the players and coaches. Vague hints that it was both Cockerill & O’Conner, each individually or no one having ultimate responsibility have been dropped but no definitive answer has ever been forthcoming. As such it is impossible to say from the outside whether O’Conner’s departure will affect this aspect of the game or not.
Historically Tigers have always adapted well to the departure of a coach, but normally this is after a series of poor results and the motivation to knuckle down is obvious. Losing O’Conner might be the thing that pushes over the top in Europe with the new ideas and motivation that Burke and Murphy bring, or it might be the loss that finally drops us out of the Premiership’s top 4. We won’t know until May, but Cockerill’s ban couldn’t have come at a worse time.