Sunday 20 August 2017

Brendan Fannning: For everyone's sake Leinster need to sort out their coaching situation

17 February 2017; Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster, left, and head coach Leo Cullen prior to the Guinness PRO12 Round 15 match between Leinster and Edinburgh at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
17 February 2017; Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster, left, and head coach Leo Cullen prior to the Guinness PRO12 Round 15 match between Leinster and Edinburgh at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

More than a fortnight ago we asked of Leinster manager Guy Easterby what was the story with Stuart Lancaster's future there. The dogs in the street were barking about a contract extension for a man who had transformed the place. The issue it seemed was simply about sitting down and putting an X in the appropriate box.

The response from Easterby was: "One hundred per cent nothing will be signed this (coming) week. Too much still to get through."

What could there be to get through? Lancaster had ridden into town last September, dismounted and broke into a sprint all in the one go. Which was just as well. The squad was crying out for leadership from a coaching staff who had been given a lot of rope. And managed to tie themselves in knots.

By way of unravelling the mess, Leinster turned first to Graham Henry last summer: a back-to-back World Cup-winning coach of New Zealand; a man with enormous experience in the game; he was here for a fortnight. And left needing extra-sized pockets to trouser the cash for his consultancy. It was described to us yesterday by a man au fait with the process as "an ass-covering exercise."

He was referring to Leinster's ass, not Henry's. And the reason it needed covering was because they had promoted en bloc an inexperienced coaching team, and given them the run of the place.

When Leinster decided in May 2015 to sack Matt O'Connor it was on the basis that he wasn't going to improve a worsening situation. These were by no means the darkest days the province had endured, but the runaway success of the Joe Schmidt era meant expectations were high. A brand was being built. And Leinster's Professional Game Board felt it would be damaged if O'Connor remained.

That made some sense. What was a harder argument to sustain was pitching Leo Cullen and Co in without a mentor. It's not easy to pluck rugby directors out of the ether, but this is something you would factor in when deciding to ditch who you had - Matt O'Connor.

Not long after the new engine started up it was obvious it wasn't working. Last autumn, however, Leinster got lucky. Landing Stuart Lancaster was a clever bit of business, kept under wraps until the great unveiling. Immediately the feedback from the players was uniformly positive. They were less concerned with his job title, and more interested in what he could do for them.

The job title though looked like a makey-up, the product of a long meeting in a stuffy room where some words were cobbled together to keep everyone happy. So Lancaster became 'senior coach'. When interviewed in this newspaper soon after his appointment he told us that he had the major say in how Leinster played, with and without the ball.

By way of comparison, he offered the following: "It's not dissimilar from other environments that exist in England. The closest comparison probably would be Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger in Leicester. So Richard Cockerill knows the club inside out, knows the DNA of the club, understands how the whole thing works and fits together. Cocky's the director of rugby I think and Mauger is the head coach. It's not dissimilar to that I think."

Leo Cullen had better hope it's not quite the same, for since Lancaster's arrival there is a view in the upper reaches of the IRFU that he needs to justify his position as a coach who is actually developing. It's known for example that the union's performance director David Nucifora - with whom Leinster struggle to get on - was not enamoured of the idea of pitching the new coaches in without a babysitter.

So we wondered if it was union involvement that constituted the "too much still to get through" that Easterby spoke of a couple of weeks ago. So what was the sticking point in signing up Lancaster? And has he actually put pen to paper?

"We're not making an official announcement until we're making an official announcement," chief executive Mick Dawson said yesterday.

Asked if there were plans to add to or subtract from the existing coaching team of Cullen, Lancaster, Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty, Dawson said there were none.

"There's no drama," he said. "These things take a bit of time."

They do when you get off on the wrong foot. Stuart Lancaster clearly has outgrown his job description of 'senior coach', just as, arguably, Leo Cullen needs to justify his one of head coach. It seems bizarre that a coaching rookie like Cullen should bypass the development stage by Leinster having got things back to front. Stuart Lancaster is staying. For everyone's sake Leinster need to sort themselves out.

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