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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 15 December, 2018

Ex-Leinster boss seeking better fortunes on return to 'special' Thomond Park

Matt O’Connor takes his Leicester Tigers side to Limerick for Saturday’s Champions Cup encounter.

Matt O'Connor before the match Matt O'Connor at Thomond Park before Leinster's defeat to Munster in December 2014. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THIRTY MONTHS SINCE his time in charge of Leinster came to an end, Matt O’Connor will be back on Irish soil as a head coach this weekend.

In his second stint with the club, O’Connor will be at the helm when Leicester Tigers face Munster at Thomond Park in Saturday evening’s Pool 4 clash in the European Champions Cup.

After a spell back home in Australia with Queensland Reds, O’Connor returned to Welford Road last April following the departures of Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger.

In Europe this season, the Tigers are joint-top of Pool 4 alongside Munster with two games played. On the domestic front, they sit in sixth place in the Aviva Premiership table with six wins from a possible 10.

While he did guide Leinster to the 2013-14 Pro12 title in his first season, O’Connor’s time with the province isn’t remembered fondly by the majority of supporters. Two years into a three-year contract, Leinster and O’Connor parted company “by mutual agreement” in May 2015.

In the Canberra native’s second season in the job, Leinster finished outside the top four play-off places in the Pro12 for the first time. Both of his European campaigns were ended by Toulon — in the quarter-final and semi-final stages respectively.

“Playing Munster at Thomond Park is one of the great joys in European rugby,” O’Connor told Leicester Tigers’ official website ahead of Saturday’s game, although the former Australian international will be seeking better fortunes at the Limerick venue on this occasion.

O’Connor suffered defeat on both of his visits to Thomond while guiding Leinster. Keith Earls scored the only try of the game in a 19-15 win for Munster in October 2013. CJ Stander scored one of three Munster tries in a man-of-the-match display as the southern province won 28-13 on St Stephen’s Day in 2014.

This is the third season in a row that Munster and Leicester have been drawn together in the Champions Cup. The Premiership side won both fixtures in the 2015-16 campaign but had mixed fortunes last season. A two-point victory at Welford Road was preceded seven days earlier by a 38-0 drubbing at Thomond.

A view of the final score Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The current Leicester boss added: “A lot of our guys have been there [Thomond Park] and experienced it now — some have tasted success there and some had a pretty average day there last year — and it is a special place in European rugby.

“We get to park the Premiership for a couple of weeks and move on to Europe and re-focus really quickly. It is a tough ask but it is one the group is really excited about. The guys are looking forward to it.”

Having been part of the side that won 19-31 there in December 2015 — a game he describes as one of the highlights of his career — Leicester centre Matt Smith is part of a select group of players to know what it’s like to overcome Munster in a European game in Limerick.

He said: “It’s a pretty hostile, pretty intimidating environment. They’re a passionate bunch over there. The crowd are really on top of you. It’s a proper rugby ground. They’re a knowledgeable bunch as well. They let you know when you’re not doing too well, so hopefully we can silence them on Saturday.”

Munster, who’ll be under the stewardship of new head coach Johann van Graan in a European fixture for the first time, head into the game on the back of Guinness Pro14 victories over Newport Gwent Dragons, Zebre and Ospreys. Leicester were beaten narrowly by Worcester Warriors and Wasps in their last two Premiership outings.

Both sides will announce their starting line-ups at lunchtime on Friday.

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Paul Dollery

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