Tuesday 27 September 2016

Tony Ward: A masterstroke - former England boss a perfect fit who will help Cullen develop

Published 06/09/2016 | 02:30

Stuart Lancaster, right, of Leinster during a press conference at UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Stuart Lancaster, right, of Leinster during a press conference at UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster's Joey Carbery. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Clearly it wasn't part of any masterplan from within Leinster, yet my immediate reaction on hearing of Stuart Lancaster's arrival as 'senior coach' was 'masterstroke'.

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Lancaster is one of the good guys involved in professional rugby. After injury ended his playing career, his communicative skill-set as a trained teacher made for a natural fit.

He did an incredible job in getting England back on track following the disaster in New Zealand under Martin Johnson in 2011.

It did go belly-up for him at the World Cup last year, and no-one is hiding from that fact. He got sucked into the rush to make rugby league star Sam Burgess into a rugby union centre, and a playmaker he couldn't possibly be.

I suspect he will admit to making a number of rash decisions at that World Cup.

Whether pressure was coming from the RFU or from his assistant coaches, the perception was of an assertive coach who had lost his way.

Since his England exit, he has had short-term roles broadening his experience into football and cycling, as well as involvement with Counties Manukau in New Zealand.

Perfect fit

And while this position at Leinster was not planned, it looks a perfect fit.

It is a high-profile position at a transitional time for the Leinster coaching set-up. Leo Cullen, Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty are all making their way admirably, but each is aware of the need to learn on the job.

Chief executive Michael Dawson and the Professional Game Board recognise the need for whatever experience can be enlisted along the way to help this new and developing management.

Graham Henry's brief stint was welcomed by the coaches, but it was really a PR exercise. Lancaster's arrival is anything but.

It is a big challenge for the former England coach to re-establish his status in the world game and equally a great opportunity for Cullen, Dempsey, Fogarty et al to work with a man made of the right stuff.

The terms 'head coach' and 'senior coach' as distinct from 'head coach' and 'director of rugby' are, I believe, highly significant, in that Cullen will continue as No 1 - unlike the situation at Munster, where Rassie Erasmus is now the main man above Anthony Foley.

Put it all together and it makes for a really exciting appointment following the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Kurt McQuilkin's enforced departure.

Leinster have got a really good man who will fit this new wider-ranging brief admirably.

Lancaster's appointment is good news after a tepid opening-night display against Treviso - although you can't judge a team on the first game of a 22-round league season.

The biggest positive for Leinster from Friday was the emergence of New Zealand-born - but Athy-bred - out-half Joey Carbery.

The versatile 20-year-old, who filled almost every backline position at youth and schoolboy level, bagged two tries created out of innovation and determination on his competitive debut. Talk about setting the bar high. The world appears to be his oyster.

Carbery is far from the finished article as a game-managing out-half - how could he be anything different? - but in terms of natural talent, Leinster have a gem.

The dilemma for management is how to develop his potential for the team good without stifling what clearly comes so naturally to him.

Leinster's other big positive was at loosehead where, with Jack McGrath on R&R, Cian Healy's display hinted that there is much life in the old dog yet.

Another new kid on the block, Andrew Porter, impressed when he came on for Healy.

Two quick points I would make about Friday's hard-won win: firstly, it was a long way from Cullen's first-choice XV, and secondly I suspect that Treviso may be about to turn a long overdue corner.

Similarly, for the opening quarter at the Kingspan, the Dragons - the poor relations of Welsh rugby - were hinting at a new resolve. Remember, this is a side that finished just ahead of Zebre and Treviso in last year's Pro12 table, a full 28 points behind ninth-placed Edinburgh.

Like any competition the Pro 12 is as strong as its weakest link and for far too long it has had three teams dragging it down.

With almost 20 minutes on the clock at Ravenhill it was 8-0 to the Dragons. Enter Ruan Pienaar with yet another man of the match performance.

While I acknowledge the rationale behind limiting the number of overseas players with the provinces, surely there should be some room for manoeuvre on a case-by-case basis?

Pienaar has brought to Ulster the same level of commitment and impact way beyond the playing field that justified Isa Nacewa being lured out of retirement last season to return to Leinster.

Of course I get the logic behind protecting the development of young, indigenous talent but Pienaar is one of a select number of overseas signings to have enriched the game in his province, as well as to the provincial team itself.

And surely Pienaar is a selling point for the Pro12 League for TV and all that entails?

Another plus for Ulster was the try-scoring performances of both wingers, Rob Lyttle and Jacob Stockdale. The international trio of Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble should be looking over their shoulders.

At Parc y Scarlets, Munster did what Munster do best, with promising signs of the organisation we had come to take for granted for so long - which is remarkable, so soon after the new regime taking control, but again I'll reserve definitive judgement.

For Connacht, it wasn't just a bad day at the office, it was nightmare stuff.

It was clear they were undercooked in terms of game-time. The inaccuracy and lack of precision was unrecognisable.

Irish Independent

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