An open letter to Stuart Lancaster
Thank you for what you have done for Irish rugby. You answered the SOS call after a very tough season in 2016, when Leinster finished bottom of their pool in the Heineken Cup, winning one match from six and losing the league final to Connacht.
Former All Black coach Graham Henry was brought in on a two-week consultancy gig that summer but Leinster needed someone on the ground day to day.
I bumped into some of the senior players the week of your first game away to Glasgow and they told me that the moment you addressed the group they knew you would get them back on track.
Your honesty, in terms of the hard times you had endured with England, touched them but it was the clarity in how you spoke to them about how they needed to train and play that made them believe you when you promised to help get them back amongst the best in Europe.
All those flights back and forth from Leeds-Bradford airport can’t have been easy and its testament to your commitment that Leinster benefited from your guidance for six seasons.
On the field you helped develop a team that is the most consistent in Europe, and off it you fostered a culture that embraces learning and growth as leaders. These players will be the cornerstone of Leinster and Ireland for the next few years.
Now to what awaits you in the Top 14.
I think you are exactly what Racing 92 needs, and you will love France. Every week is a big occasion and the crowds and atmosphere in every stadium are class. Last night Racing played La Rochelle away and it was the 70th match in a row to sell out for La Rochelle. Every away ground has a different smell and feel, and a trip to Bayonne will get the hairs on the back of your neck standing more than a trip to Parma to play Zebre.
You will not have to play second fiddle to the national team. The laws of engagement are set in stone and situations like the current debacle around the Toyota Cup won’t happen.
Jacky Lorenzetti is no ordinary president. The 74-year-old is said to be worth €1.17 billion and became the majority shareholder in Racing 92 in 2006 when they were in the second tier of French rugby. He has built a training centre, stadium and squad that are the envy of the majority of rugby organisations around the world.
He has seen his team win one Top 14 title but lose in three European Cup finals, and he wants to be the best club in France and Europe.
Lorenzetti’s offices for his business empire adjoin the training centre so he is around a lot and if you need to speak to him he will be there. He isn’t as domineering as some of the other egomaniac presidents in France. I think he has learnt that emotion and electroshocks rarely work and will trust you to do your thing.
About 10 seasons ago, following a tepid display and loss at home, he asked the coaching staff if he could talk to the players on the Monday morning. He wanted exclusive access to the gym and it was to be out of bounds while the players had their review meetings with the coaches. At the agreed time the coaches were to send the players down to the gym for a talk with the boss.
In the meantime, Jacky arranged for two lions to be brought into the gym. While he spoke to the players, telling them they needed to be fearless and aggressive on the pitch, the lions were in two cages which were covered with blankets. At the key moment in his speech he pulled off the blankets expecting the lions to jump up, flash their teeth and maybe let out a roar and reinforce his message.
I am not sure whether the lions were overfed or overmedicated but they didn’t move and inch and the players were in stitches. Jacky was furious, demanding that the ring master create a more dramatic effect. After a bit of prodding and encouragement the lions got up and stretched a bit, but no more. I’ve seen the video. It wasn’t your typical Monday morning review but things like this can happen in France and that certainly keeps everyone on their toes.
French rugby is a wonderful mix of the modern professional game and some of the old school amateur ethos that we all used to love. It’s important to put your stamp on things but don’t try and win every battle. The French live to eat rather than eat to live and meals and meal times are very important. They love long lunches and even the odd glass of wine with lunch or dinner is not frowned upon.
I remember having to try and wean our players off full sugar cola at every meal and my biggest opponent was the club doctor who doubled up as the defacto nutritionist. He felt it was important for their mental wellbeing to have the sugar rush.
The playing pool in France and the fact that they have the resources to sign the best foreign talent in the world means that you are going to have gifted athletes. For gifted athletes everything comes easier.
If you can convince them of the benefits of living the life of an elite athlete for 24 hours a day you will get serious gains. I found that most were good from 9.0 to 5.0 but it was the hours outside of supervision that let some down.
I know high intensity training is a rock that you built Leinster on and will help Racing be fitter than their opponents, but getting the players to train like that consistently might not happen overnight. The new coaching team with France — where high intensity training is now the norm — will have made it easier for you to convince them of its value but your non-international players have been used to training for long periods at a slow pace.
They will learn and adapt but it could take time. The Irish rugby player is used to structure and detail from their days in school but the Racing players will learn to enjoy the intensity and organisation that you bring. It may just take a bit of time.
The sooner that you can learn French the better but at the start focus on getting your message across. I remember before I went to Grenoble I asked Joe Schmidt for his advice as a non-French speaker going to there, as he had with Clermont. He said just focus on the three key messages that you want to get across in a meeting or on the pitch and learn them in French.
There will be plenty of people who can translate in the playing or coaching staff, but the sooner you can chat to the French players in French the better. Seeing you make an effort will go a long way, but not at the expense of making meetings even longer and losing their interest.
When you get your French up to a level you are comfortable with then take your coaching badges there. It’s a great way of understanding how your French players have been coached and why they think the way they do.
Finally, and most importantly, do everything in your power to get the staff around you that you want. You are now number one and need to have a team that have the skills that will complement yours but also people who have your back.
You will want to change things and some people don’t react positively to change. The advantage of Jacky being readily available to you also means that he is available to disgruntled players should they wish to moan.
My understanding is that Racing have moved out a lot of the bad eggs from the dressing room, but foreign coaches need to be extra careful of player power. Ewan McKenzie, Michael Cheika, Mike Ford, Jake White and many more all tried to implement their cultures and met resistance. Part of your gift is to be able to bring people with you and that will be key to your success.
I think that you and Racing 92 are a perfect match and look forward to seeing you make them better.
Bon Chance, Bernard