Saturday 19 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Leinster need to take their culture back to basics'

Hopefully there will be a comprehensive solution to the issues that have damaged the image of the province

‘You’d be more confident about the ‘full recovery’ bit when the young player who was hospitalised is rolled out in the PRO14 and Celtic Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
‘You’d be more confident about the ‘full recovery’ bit when the young player who was hospitalised is rolled out in the PRO14 and Celtic Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You could say England's 2011 World Cup campaign wasn't truly over until Manu Tuilagi had stripped down to his keks and hopped over the side of a ferry about to dock in Auckland Harbour.

He swam to an alternative pier, clambered out, and was soon met by police who detained him for an hour or so before giving him back his freedom - with a caution.

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The (English) RFU fined him £3,000 and warned him about his future conduct. After the dwarf throwing in a bar in Queenstown, and the ball switching episode which saw two of their coaching staff suspended, it was the last straw for an England squad who looked like they were on a particularly painful episode of the television show Wipeout.

Out went Martin Johnson and most of his staff; in came Stuart Lancaster - initially on an interim basis - with a handful of new faces on the management team and a raft of them on the playing side.

Lancaster was a breath of fresh air. If he had arrived in a big red bus then instead of NHS you would have had plastered on the side the words Humility, Respect, Responsibility. Which is how he described the mission at the time.

"Be humble, not to be arrogant, to respect each other and everyone else, to accept the responsibility of being an England player," he said. "Fundamentally my belief is that the culture is set by the head coach. The high-performance environments which have won consistently have all been driven by the head coach, rather than anyone else."

What Lancaster met on his arrival in Dublin in the summer of 2016 was a good deal different to the scene that had greeted him in England in late 2011. In Dublin he didn't walk into a group who had been dogged by stories of players who had lost the plot, but certainly they had lost their way on the field. Their European campaign had ended in the pool stages, conceding over 50 points at home to Wasps in the last game. In the Pro12, as it was then, they had been beaten in the final by Connacht.

His impact since then has been enormously positive, for him as much as the men he coaches. Many would be especially pleased at Leinster's subsequent success because it reflects so well on Lancaster, who is as well-liked as he is respected.

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It's hard to imagine that en route he abandoned the principles that drove him when he took over the England job. Nothing in his demeanour with us since then has suggested that is the case. So you'd wonder what he made of the events of the last couple of weeks.

When speaking to people around the two separate incidents in writing the story for last week's Sunday Independent, the bit we couldn't fathom was how Stan Wright was still mixing with the public when the official reunion gig rolled around on the Tuesday night at the RDS.

You would have imagined the sequence to unfold as follows: 'Good news and bad news Stan: the good news is you won't be going off in a car with a blue light on top because the bloke you've just sent to hospital in a van with another blue light on top is not pressing charges; the bad news is you're packing your bags and on the next flight.'

If letting him hang around was bad enough then giving him a role in the pageant that unfolded in the RDS beggared belief. As one man who witnessed this unfold said - he was aware of the incident that had happened on the night of the game - "My blood ran cold when they led Stan up on stage for a chat." Blinded by hubris, Leinster ploughed on.

The other aspect that has driven folks demented was the statement issued by the province last week. It read: "Leinster Rugby is aware of an alleged incident that occurred in the early hours of Sunday 26th May 2019 involving one of our Academy players and a former Leinster Rugby employee. An internal investigation was carried out by Leinster Rugby, which has concluded to the satisfaction of all parties and as a result we will not be making any further comment on the incident other than to confirm that the player in question received medical attention and that he has made a full recovery."

You'd be more confident about the "full recovery" bit when the young player who was hospitalised is rolled out in the Pro14 and Celtic Cup in a few months and has no after effects. As for the rest of the statement, sometimes when you write something via committee the end result might cover your ass but still do reputational damage. So this ticked legal and HR boxes, but it made Leinster look like they don't really give a toss.

True, it would have been easier had Stan Wright chipped in with an apology that could have been included in print. It's understood that he has apologised to the Academy player, but on legal advice he chose not to make a public comment.

Perhaps when the Sean O'Brien element of the saga is squared away by the IRFU there will be a comprehensive statement from Leinster.

All of that will be done and dusted by the time Stuart Lancaster lifts the lid on a new pre-season. He may think that the culture of an organisation is set by its head coach, but it goes higher and wider than that. They could start with going back to basics.

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