It’s been quite the summer break so far at Welford Road!. Firstly, there was a surprise announcement that Tigers’ head coach Dan McKeller had left the club by mutual agreement and within the week the new coach Michael Cheika had already been appointed.

Tigers had fallen to 8th in the Premiership, their third worst finish in the 35 years of league rugby.  Discontent had surprisingly been minimal, in public at least.

In truth the season never really got going. The long pre-season was followed by the group stages of the Premiership Rugby Cup acting as bridge to the full Premiership season which only started in mid-October. Four defeats in the first five matches put Tigers down the table and even a run of 6 wins from 7, between beating Northampton in November and Quins in January, was not enough to get back into the top half.

Then came the long break for the Six Nations where the club pushed a line of being the only side still in contention for three trophies.  While true it only built-up pressure & expectations. Pressure that the coaches and players seemed in no way ready to deal with. When the heat came on Tigers reverted to an extremely negative & conservative game plan that simply invited on more and more pressure.

The defeat to Bristol, losing from a position of 19-0 up at home after 67 minutes, will live long in the memory and was for many the last straw with McKellar and some players.

McKellar was keen in interviews to lay the blame on the Rugby World Cup, injuries, the mysterious situation with his attack coach Alan Dickens, who had euphemistically been “on leave” for months, and latterly his fitness coach. Very little was spoken about his decisions around selection or tactics.  Perhaps he really thought they were perfect, or more likely that admitting to mistakes is a weakness he could not afford. Unfortunately, it gave the impression of arrogance or worse a head in the sand inability to see the real problems. The Daily Telegraph has reported that he was offered the budget to recruit short term coaching cover but decided against it. To then complain of being a coach short must have annoyed his bosses no end.

Some fans preach patience and “stability” as the key to success. A look at the past 10 winners of the Premiership will show that the coaches of all of those side improved their team in their first season.  There is only really one case in the entire league era, since 1987, of a coaching seeing a decline in his initial season then later winning the league. Conor O’Shea, in the wake of Harlequins’ bloodgate scandal, saw the Londoners fall from 2nd to 8th in his first season, before building them back to the title in his third year. It would have been a much bigger gamble for Tigers to back McKellar repeating a once in 40-year turnround, rather than taking a fresh approach to what is still an extremely talented squad.

Tigers are now in the curious position of keeping most of McKellar’s staff, including newly hired attack coach Peter Hewat, who joined just 10 days before McKellar’s departure, but working for a new top man.

The appointment of Cheika is a real coup for Tigers, the biggest name appointment the club has made since Bob Dwyer in 1996. Cheika is another Australian and comes with a seriously beefy CV.  In 2009 he led Leinster to their first European Cup, beating Tigers in the final, and laid much of the mental foundations for their subsequent success; from there he went to Stade Français Paris, where he reached a Challenge Cup final in a mixed spell; before joining the New South Wales Waratahs in 2014 and leading them to their only Super Rugby title in 2015.

Since then, he has mainly worked with international teams leading Australia to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, their best result since 1999, and taking Argentina to 4th place in the recent 2023 World Cup, their second-best finish ever, as well as their first away win against New Zealand.

He will arrive having worked closely with Tigers captain Julián Montoya who was his captain with the Pumas. Cheika is famous for his abrasive personality and attacking philosophy, both of which should go down well with Tigers who tend to embrace tough love and like bold ambition.

Words by Stuart Keene.

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