It’s unprecedented for a Premiership club – let alone the country’s biggest – to have their head coach and defense coach mid-season; and still unprecedented that the poaching was done by the Rugby Football Union for the England men’s team.
However, that is the situation Leicester have found themselves in, with Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield now at the helm of English rugby following the sacking of Eddie Jones after a bleak autumn campaign in England.
As the Tigers scrambled to replace their two leaders at short notice, Richard Wigglesworth put down his playing shoes and became the club’s interim head coach – he already led the attack in a player-coach role – and chief executive Andrea Pinchen is now leading the hunt for Borthwick’s permanent successor – and to be maybe Wigglesworth.
It was a plan of action that was already in motion but has since been accelerated – with the help of analytics pioneers Oval Insights – due to the urgency of Borthwick and Sinfield replacing Jones with England.
“For the rest of the season we are certainly set with Richard Wigglesworth as interim, with Aled Walters [head of strength and conditioning] stepping up and running the program with him – and Matt Everard taking a step forward, and other assistant coaches,” says Pinchen.
“For us, it’s really a timing element, not anything else, because we’ve been working on this route over the summer. We knew there was a very high chance that Steve would be asked to go to England, so we started doing a lot of work on that and working with Oval Insights who work with us on recruiting to really define the criteria so we could put together a shortlist.”
“We’re evaluating anything you can think of to see how they fit into our environment and improve what we do and push us forward, that was important.”
“So you have all your analysis that’s spit out at the end, you have your shortlist, and then you look at it – and you want that human interaction as well, you look at testimonials and you ask people for their opinion, which Steve was one of.
“I told him, ‘Here’s my shortlist, here’s what we’ve really come up with and what better rugby brain to pick than yours, can you give your opinion?’ And he was more than happy to do so.
“The final decision has not yet been made. We spoke to a lot of people – one of whom is Richard Wigglesworth and he was on the shortlist all the time. So we’re continuing our plan.”
While Pinchen declined to divulge the size of the shortlist or set a timeline for the nominations, the Premiership’s only female chief confirmed that no one from the RFU had inquired about securing the services of Wigglesworth or Walters at the end of that season.
After Harlequins’ Nick Evans was confirmed this week as England’s attacking coach for the Six Nations Championship only, a long-term role seemed up for grabs.
However, with Leicester currently in a small rut on the pitch – the Tigers have lost 85 points in their last two defeats – Wigglesworth has had no time to think about his future. After losing two coaches, he has confirmed he will only bring in additional bodies if they are “properly matched”, but his attention is firmly fixed on Friday night and a dispiriting trip to Clermont Auvergne in the Champions Cup.
“I’m focused on what’s happening now,” says Wigglesworth. “I’m looking at the next five months. If they ask me what I think about the players and what needs to happen, I give my opinion.
“I have absolutely no idea what I want to do [if a director of rugby came in above him]. If I have something to worry in front of my face. If I started worrying about who I wanted to work for or what I might want to do, I would be distracted from the important things.”
Wigglesworth, who has had the most Premiership appearances of all time, also has to contend with the possibility of Borthwick plundering his Leicester squad ahead of the start of the Six Nations against Scotland at Twickenham on February 4.
“I’ve been trying to find some inside information, but Steve, being Steve, treats me the same as everyone else and tells me I’ll find out when everyone else does. He’s a busy man at the moment – and so am I – so this catch-up has been limited, but I’m sure once it’s announced I’ll adapt.
“I’d be very surprised if he didn’t take some of our boys. It would be deserved. We want our players to be national teams. It may make my job harder, it may affect our performance, but I want what’s best for individuals.”
Meanwhile, Pinchen added that Leicester fans should not fear another recruitment episode, such as the one in which Matt O’Connor returned to the club as director of rugby only to be sacked after the opening game of the 2018/19 season, the 40-year-old player of 6 beats in Exeter.
“What we’ve learned from this is that it’s not about feeling your gut,” she said. “It’s not just ‘this person wants this job and I think he’ll be right.’ It’s all about evidence and win rates. If they were successful, you have to look at the players they had… how many internationals did they have?
You have to dig much deeper. These analytics are really helpful, but nothing will give you as much information as talking to people in the industry who have worked with or been trained by them.
“It’s about the right person, the right fit, whoever that might be. Importantly, looking at our style of play and recruitment, we don’t want to recruit players and sign them for many years and bring in a coach who doesn’t fit that style of play at all – because we’re just putting ourselves in a losing position.”