Sunday 19 November 2017

Brent Pope: You still wonder if Leo Cullen will feel slightly undermined by Stuart Lancaster

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen talking to the media alongside new recruit Stuart Lancaster (right) in Belfield. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen talking to the media alongside new recruit Stuart Lancaster (right) in Belfield. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

Leinster rugby has shown plenty of aspiration in the appointment of ex-English coach Steve Lancaster as departing Kiwi defence coach Kurt McQuilkan’s replacement.

Lancaster comes to the party with a good reputation, despite his stock tumbling after England’s shock departure in the group stages of the last World Cup. With so much anticipation and hype before the tournament, Lancaster gave the RFU no choice but to weld the axe on his relatively short international career – but not before he  had seemed to make English rugby somewhat likable again.

Lancaster did not sit idle after his dismissal, and has been busy with short-term roles with the Atlanta Falcons, with British Cycling’s world-class performance programme, the English FA and most recently as a defence guru with Counties Manukau in New Zealand.

Lancaster is reputed to be a humble, likable man with plenty of  rugby  ideas and that is a definite plus in working with Irish players. You still wonder if Cullen will feel slightly undermined in only his second year in charge.

Yes, he can garnish fresh new ideas from a coach with more experience than him and Cullen’s learning curve is sure to have been enhanced after the short-term appointment of former All Black coach Graham Henry a few weeks ago.

But it is still an extremely difficult situation to be in. This is not the club game, it is the home of one of the great European sides. Cullen needs to establish who is the overall boss from day one and set his boundaries for Lancaster’s input early on. Why?

Because when an assistant coach used to running the show comes in with an international CV,  coaches can become a little wary that some of the players may start to shift allegiance and respect to the new man.

It certainly worked that way in the Warren Gatland and Eddie O’ Sullivan era, when both men wanted to be at the helm.

This transitional phase is crucial for Cullen and must be managed well. Overall, I have been impressed with Cullen thus far, and while he had the disappointments of an early European exit last year and a damaging loss to Connacht in the Rabo League decider at the end of his first year, Cullen proved himself to be an excellent communicator.

His greatest asset is respect and showing the players that he is about the team first and not about himself. Coaches need to know their roles and work together in a natural, symbiotic way with egos left at the door.

One thing is for certain –  Leinster will have their work cut out to defeat Glasgow away this weekend, after the Scottish team’s win in Galway last week once again proved they are a real force in this competition.

Glasgow employ an enviable style of play that has developed extremely well under Gregor Townsend, one of the best coaches in the league. Townsend has achieved what the Scottish national team can’t, a team that plays to a particular pattern and sticks to it.

Under his tutelage, Glasgow have been one of the most expansive and pleasing teams to watch, using space and the offloading game extremely well. Glasgow are missing some of their Fijian imports but they have managed to recruit fairly strongly and are less affected by injury and retirements than many other high-flying clubs.

 They also have a world-class operator in Stuart Hogg, and along with the likes of Tommy Seymour and Sean Lamont can do some serious damage to a Leinster back division still making basic defensive errors.

A win away at this stage for Leinster would be a huge fillip for Cullen’s side, but Leinster will have to be far more clinical that they were against Treviso last weekend, despite getting the expected victory albeit without the bonus point.

Cullen’s attitude about last week’s somewhat stumbling performance will be ‘Job done, learn from it and move forward’. With so many new faces, Leinster will take time to get any continuity into their game and the stop-start nature of the first half especially showed a training ground mentality, as Leinster struggled to play as a cohesive unit.

There was an exciting debut at this level for last year’s outstanding club player, Clontarf’s Joey Carberry. Carberry has a lot to learn, but he has natural attacking flair to match a decent reading of the game and is a real prospect for the future. He distributes well, is confident and has a real turn of speed. His defence and game management will come with more experience, and he should get plenty of that as  Jonathan Sexton’s understudy.

Cullen will assess how he will strengthen his side this week with a few returning options and he will have to look at his fringe defence, an area where Glasgow did some real damage against Connacht.

As a betting man you would have to fancy the more unified Glasgow side at this stage, but then again that’s when Leinster are often at their best. A tough day in store for a Leinster team that needs to improve rapidly.

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