Two weeks ago, Leicester dished up one of the worst opening performances in recent memory, leading to the sacking of head coach Matt O’Connor.
Since that decision the Tigers have rebounded emphatically, blitzing Newcastle in the first half in their home opener at Welford Road and piling 35 points on at the Ricoh despite being down to 14-men for most of the match.
Worries of a dead cat bounce look to be misguided after the follow-up 6-point loss to Wasps, as the schizophrenic Tigers have transformed into a dangerous attacking side and one man at the centre of this is flyhalf George Ford.
He is playing like the weight has been lifted off his shoulders, without the fear of repercussions, ripping teams apart with guile and daring bravado.
You can’t go from being that bad to this good overnight. There is only one explanation for this, and it is a sad indictment on O’Connor – he is a coach who gets the worst out of his players, and that is the worst kind of coach.
When a coach is at odds with his team, restraining their natural talents and failing to find a way for their skills to flourish, the conflict permeates into performance. Ford’s aimless and meandering play under O’Connor’s direction has disappeared overnight, replaced by an attacking genius looking to tear teams apart with ball-in-hand.
The shackles have been removed and we are seeing the best of George Ford – 5 line breaks, 12 defenders beaten, three try assists and one try for himself in just two games. That doesn’t include the involvement in the lead-up work to many other Tiger tries.
It can be impossible from the outside to know how the players are feeling about their coach, or how their relationship with the coach is impacting their play. But in this case, the evidence is overwhelming. There has been no change except for the removal of Matt O’Connor and Ford is now, statistically, the best attacking 10 in the competition.
The Tigers have opened up the playbook, looking to run from their own 22 at times, testing the defence before exiting. They are actually gelling from set-piece attack and in phase play, and Ford’s play has been instrumental in all of this.
It might seem harsh on O’Connor, but this is a coach who has been sacked or let go from the last three teams he’s been at, with the same issues persisting at each stop over the last five years. The modern game is evolving at such rapid pace as rule changes bring about new strategies, every four years is like a decade in rugby years. When coaches are employed based on successes from the late 2000’s or even early 2010’s, it can be like still using a Nokia flip phone when the iPhone is here. Unless they have evolved as well it is a recipe for disaster.
Why teams continue to hand out contracts to old relics is a mystery, and now after O’Connor’s third failed stint in a row, this should surely be the end until he proves himself in lower grades. He should be on every club’s blacklist until that happens, unless they want to nosedive fast.
One man can make all the difference, which is why O’Connor had to go – without him Leicester, and George Ford, are far better off.
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