Thursday 22 March 2018

Brendan Fanning: Appointment of Stuart Lancaster does not guarantee major improvements at Leinster

Stuart Lancaster's experience will be useful for Leinster, but it may not be transformative

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster casts a critical eye as players train during training at UCD in Belfield. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster casts a critical eye as players train during training at UCD in Belfield. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

To be the global standard-bearer for professional club rugby. To encourage, organise, promote and grow the participation in and playing of rugby in the 12 counties of Leinster.

A man close to this parish, who lists Labour and Leinster as sturdy branches on his passion tree, was recalling for us last week the run-up to the 1987 General Election, when the late Frank Cluskey received an unexpected gift. It was a bus. A great big one, hard to miss, and it came courtesy of the Federated Workers' Union of Ireland, for whom Frank had once been a branch secretary. What do you do with a bus in the run-up to such a momentous event? Well, you brand it and drive it around the constituency - in this case Dublin South Central - being seen. And then, in the absence of something better to do, you spin around again.

Our man mentioned this by way of the arrival in Leinster last week of Stuart Lancaster. As in: will they have something for the new man to do about the place, or will he just drive around, filling in time before something more permanent comes along?

It was at that point we referred him to Leinster's mission statement. Its first sentence gives you an idea of where Leinster see themselves in the rugby world. People with global aspirations don't fill in time. They crack on, with purpose.

This all started in May 2015 with the sacking of Matt O'Connor. It's worth remembering Leinster's thinking at the time for dropping the Australian, who had arrived from Leicester two seasons earlier with a strong coaching pedigree.

Following in the footsteps of Joe Schmidt was thankless, not least because the squad was diminishing in quality. Moreover, O'Connor maintained that he needed time to get them out of the Schmidt system and into his own.

In those two seasons, Leinster won the Guinness Pro12, failed to make the play-off stages of that competition the following year, but got to the semis of the Champions Cup, where they were beaten in Toulon. All things considered, it was far from falling off the edge of the cliff.

Nevertheless, the natives were, by then, very restless, and O'Connor's relationship with IRFU rugby director David Nucifora had deteriorated dramatically.

It's a stretch to claim that Leinster's season ticket sales needed to be saved, so O'Connor was chopped - but that's what happened. They were over the 10,000 mark when he was turfed. The feeling on Leinster's Professional Game Board, however, was that the brand was taking a battering, so even if there wasn't a ready-made replacement parked out front, a change of coach would be good for business.

By that point, Leo Cullen - who had gone straight from playing to coaching the forwards - had already made it known that he was keen to step up. He was given the gig initially till the end of the season. When it came to a more permanent arrangement though, Cullen seemingly came across like Eddie O'Sullivan - a hard-ass negotiator in these things. With no credible or suitable alternatives available at such short notice, he got the job, and his employers were impressed and reassured by how much he wanted it.

The distance between the interview room and the pitch has proved a stretch. As leader of an inexperienced coaching crew, comprising defence coach Kurt McQuilkin, backs coach Girvan Dempsey and scrum coach John Fogarty - they would soon lose skills coach Richie Murphy to the national set-up - it wasn't long before Cullen looked lost.

Not unlike O'Connor before him, topping the table in the Pro12 last season before losing the final to Connacht, didn't register with the fans as any class of achievement. By then it was clear to Leinster's PGB that in acting to shore up the brand they had exposed a team of greenhorns to the harsh realities of professional sport.

So first they dialled up Graham Henry - a stupendously expensive phone call - to give Cullen a dig out, initially from long distance and then up close and personal for a fortnight during the summer. The departure of McQuilkin, however, rang the loudest alarm bell yet. In the steady stream of complaints coming from Camp Leinster the defence coach has remained untouched. Bizarrely, the names run initially across the desk of the PGB to replace McQuilkin included some more candidates patently short on experience.

Then along came Lancaster, a man who ticked enough boxes to generate an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the punters. Interestingly, this is the second time since the World Cup that Ireland have picked up England's cast-offs. And better still, the first of those - Andy Farrell - is portrayed by many across the water as having been allowed too much power in the set-up headed by Lancaster.

England's implosion at their own World Cup was ascribed to a few factors, but you needed to be over there during the tournament to gauge the heat generated by the Sam Burgess debate. The consensus boiled down to this: fast-tracking Burgess from League was a mistake, and Lancaster was responsible for allowing Farrell drive it all the way to the World Cup meltdown.

Whether or not Lancaster, a League fan, was as enamoured of Burgess as was Farrell almost doesn't matter. He carried the can for it, and other stuff, and by his own account will be dragging it around for the rest of his days.

From every source we've spoken to, Lancaster is a thoroughly decent bloke with a passion for the two codes of rugby, England, the North of England, coaching, and perhaps a few other things besides. Having been coach of the Saxons he was brought in following the shambles that was England's 2011 World Cup, under Martin Johnson, to reconstitute affairs. The squad had been portrayed largely as arrogant and ignorant. He peeled back a few layers and started with their identity. One of Lancaster's first moves was to write to the families of the players in the England squad - not to complain about dwarf-throwing or hopping overboard from a ferry - but to ask what it meant to them to have a son representing his country. Seemingly, when the letters were read out to the players it was powerful stuff.

Over the course of his four years on the job he succeeded in rebranding England as a humble, hard-working group in touch with their roots. Critically, however, they won nothing. Four years of Six Nations rugby, four runners-up spots. Given England's resources, that is unacceptable.

Almost to shred everything he had done on the culture front, along came Eddie Jones in Lancaster's wake and encouraged arrogance up front. They won a Grand Slam, followed by an historic whitewash of Australia down under.

So whatever Lancaster brings to Leinster it's not a track record of success at the highest level. The points of greatest interest for us now are the style of play, the results, how the day-to-day coaching will be divvied up, and who will be left standing at the end of the season.

Some in Leinster see Leo Cullen as director of rugby next term, with Lancaster, in a semantic stroke, promoted from senior coach to head coach. That is unlikely, not least because it's probable that the Englishman is more suited to what happens around the field, and the relationships that drive it, than the stuff inside the four white lines. The other way around would make more sense, with Lancaster as DoR.

For that to have happened, however, would have involved Leinster gazumping Cullen, which clearly would have made him unhappy, as well as making them look culpable for having installed him in the first place. In the meantime, Glasgow pick up Dave Rennie, back-to-back Super Rugby-winning coach with the Chiefs, and Bath grab hold of Todd Blackadder from the Crusaders, the most successful outfit in the history of that competition.

Surely if you aspire to be the "global standard bearer" then these are the names you should be attracting, and for longer than the single season for which Stuart Lancaster has been hired. His experience will certainly be useful, but there is nothing to suggest it will be transformative. On the field.

Incidentally, Frank Cluskey retained his seat in 1987. And the bus wasn't for keeps. We'll see how long Leinster's new arrangement lasts.

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