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Nick Cain: O’Connor had better watch his back at Leicester

The knives are out at Welford Road – again – with Matt O’Connor on his way back in as Leicester’s head coach and Aaron Mauger the latest to get the stiletto between the shoulder blades.

Mauger, a former All Black and Leicester centre, took charge just two months ago when Richard Cockerill’s eight-year association with the club as director of rugby was terminated.

Mauger got the bad news just one day after the Tigers – who went into yesterday’s East Midlands derby against Northampton in fifth place in the Premiership – beat Exeter to win the Anglo- Welsh Cup final.

It was the club’s first silverware for four years, but the impatience at Leicester’s inability to get among the big prizes at European Cup and Premiership level is clearly beginning to create waves in the boardroom of England’s best supported club.

Mauger’s fate was almost certainly sealed when Leicester crashed to a record home defeat against Glasgow Warriors soon after he took over.

Despite some of the squad taking to social media in support of the outgoing Kiwi – full-back Telusa Veainu tweeting: “With 5 games to go, really?? We don’t know how good we’ve got it! #bigger picture# gutted” – the

players have to take some responsibility for his departure.

There is little doubt that it was the inability of the Tigers to put together an all-court game during Mauger’s two-year tenure, first working with Cockerill, and then briefly in sole charge, which led to his exit.

The reality is that Mauger earmarked a number of Southern Hemisphere signings to coincide with his arrival – including two Kiwis, lock Michael Fitzgerald and openside Brendon O’Connor, as well as Aussie wing Peter Betham – with a view to playing a fast 15-man game.

However, while shifting the focus at Tigers to expansive running rugby – which even involved increasing the size of the pitch – the grizzled forward power that has been the staple diet at Welford Road from time immemorial was allowed to go to pot.

The Leicester pack has gone from formidable to fairweather in the space of a couple of seasons, and that has made the transition to the wide game that Mauger hankered after doubly difficult.

The old adage is that you cannot make bricks without straw – and the bricks in the Leicester pack had been crumbling far more easily than ever before.

The upshot is that the backline, and the marauding back row, that Mauger wanted to set free to promote a new Leicester style, have become neutered.

Without a powerful set-piece platform and a bruising presence in the loose, Leicester have fallen from top table to scrabbling up from mid-table – and it has been a nasty jolt.

The diminishing forward clout makes it even more surprising that the main target of Leicester’s recruitment strategy has been to sign an increasing numbers of international backs – with George Ford, Matt Toomua, JP Pietersen and Maxime Mermoz among those added to the roster – without a heavy-duty forward signing in sight.

O’Connor, who worked as an assistant coach to Cockerill between 2009 and 2013, won three Premiership titles and reached a European Cup final during his first stint at the club.

Should the 46-year-old Australian – who has been working with the Queensland Reds and Tonga since being fired by Leinster – be granted a visa, one of his first jobs will be to help Leicester win their showdown against Bath in The Clash, which takes place at Twickenham on April 8.

With just four league games remaining after this weekend, Leicester are in a battle for a top four Premiership finish, having never failed to qualify for the play-offs.

That will be O’Connor’s immediate mission, with the result in the big game against Bath critical to its success although, ironically, a tight victory in the East Midlands derby yesterday, with Mauger in charge for the final time, lifted them into that coveted position.

However, given Leicester’s ruthless despatching of coaches who lose the confidence of the Tigers board, O’Connor could be forgiven for exchanging the tracksuit for a flak jacket when he comes in to work.

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