Wednesday 17 January 2018

Lancaster bomber loads up for another run at the target

Englishman throwing himself into new Leinster job in bid for forget World Cup misery

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We know a thing or two in this country about crap World Cups, and how to rebound from them. We had firmly established the routine of underachievement from 1987 through '91 and '95 when, in '99, we broke new ground and failed to get even as far as the quarter-final.

For those of us who were in Lens that night, the memory is still clear of the sense of devastation in the Ireland camp. It was as if everyone couldn't wait for the following day, when they could confirm that what had just happened - defeat by Argentina - hadn't really happened at all. Sure enough the next day dawned, wet and wild - elements sent to reaffirm the grimness of it all. But at least everyone concerned could get on a plane and go home.

For Stuart Lancaster and his England squad a year ago there was no such avenue of escape. Rather, the morning after being turfed from the tournament by Australia, they had to gather their stuff and shift up to Manchester for the final pool game. With Uruguay, no less.

Imagine you are the coach in the eye of the storm. It would have been 1am by the time you got back to the hotel after media and other commitments had been squared away. How would you sleep? Certainly not well enough to prepare you for another press conference at 9am. Other media gigs would follow on the Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday - and then, finally, the Monday again. And these affairs typically involve saying roughly the same thing in sequence to TV, radio, print and online media. It's never an in and out job.

In between, you somehow had to stand at the top of the room, in the first team meeting post-Brexit, and make like you wanted to be there rather than in a shed in an allotment on a remote outpost of England's green and pleasant land. In a lovely touch, when Lancaster eventually did escape to the wilds of his native Cumbria - to a caravan owned by his parents - he was out for a solitary walk along a headland when the world caught up with him.

"I was just there on my own and then this one bloke came up to me - he was walking the other way with his dog. He said: 'You're Stuart Lancaster, aren't you?' I was like: 'Oh my god, how come, a million miles from anywhere?'."

They knew him in the local pub too. A gallon of beer later they knew him a bit better. The image of England's coach shuffling back to the caravan after that session is on a par with that of Eddie O'Sullivan - who could identify with Lancaster's pain - at the check-in desk in Dublin airport some time after his Ireland career bombed. He was heading to the US in search of work, but first had to satisfy the baggage weight limit, and was stuffing clothes into a bin. Not exactly front of the bus stuff.

It was impossible not to think of O'Sullivan too when Lancaster referred to coaches who have struggled to make the next connection post-sacking. By comparison he has been, in a good way, all over the place. From going back to his roots, and doing a bit with local schools and clubs, to sampling rugby in the US, where their foray into a domestic professional competition was just getting up and running, Lancaster has been around. His travels also took him to a few spots in the Super Rugby world to see what they were at.

"A whole variety of things came in the UK through the advisory board to the FA, the UK Sport Commission, the cycling review, which is still ongoing," he says. "And in between time I did a lot of coaching in Yorkshire (where he lives) - a lot of junior clubs, local clubs. I just felt I needed to get back out there and coach again. It was a lot of stuff people didn't realise that I'd done."

Higher up the food chain there was interest from the Queensland Reds and a French club before the digits 00353 popped up on his mobile phone. It was Leo Cullen. One long conversation led to one short visit and from there it snowballed into what we have now: a revised coaching structure in Leinster in which Cullen has moved into a de facto director of rugby role, with Lancaster having the major say in how the team play - with and without the ball. Girvan Dempsey continues to have an influence on backline attack, and John Fogarty the same with the scrum.

It was interesting to get feedback from a few players at different levels in the organisation. The consensus is that the windows have been opened wide, and fresh air is blowing through the place, right down to the Academy - an area where Lancaster would have experience from his days with the (English) RFU.

"It's not dissimilar from other environments that exist in England," he says. "The closest comparison probably would be Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger in Leicester. So Richard Cockerill knows the club inside out, knows the DNA of the club, understands how the whole thing works and fits together. Cocky's the director of rugby I think and Mauger is the head coach."

The impact on the field was most obvious with the way Leinster defended against Edinburgh, by which stage Lancaster had barely a fortnight under his belt. Naturally enough, given his relationship with Andy Farrell, there is a clear overlap in style.

"Obviously one of the reasons he (Farrell) was quite keen for me to join is that there can be similar systems upwards from Leinster to Ireland as the players can jump from one to the other," Lancaster says.

"So I think it's getting the players to understand - particularly in defence, how many players you need in the backfield, without going through all the intricacies of it. Some teams will have a philosophy of pulling wingers and the scrumhalf off the front line, and the full-back, and as soon as you start putting three or four people in the backfield it becomes very hard then to have defensive width.

"As a consequence if, like Connacht, they move the ball from wide to wide, you always have to back off on the sides, whereas if you can fill your front line a bit more and get more disciplined in terms of workrate, spacing, then you've got the ability to go with confidence off the line because you know you've got people either side of you who can come with you. So it was twofold really: to paint a picture of how they were defending and to explain this is how we are going to defend (now).

"It's funny, from a coaching point of view - coming from a teaching background you've got this continuum of directive coaching over here and empowerment over here, and asking opinions about what we should be doing. It was at this end (directive). But the players responded to it brilliantly. They wanted clarity from me and I tried to give them very quick and early clarity. And then have made them accountable for it.

"So if there's a mistake made they've got to understand why it was made, and again the players have responded brilliantly. I can't speak highly enough of the work ethic they've got. And I've got lots of players from different countries but the work ethic they've got, and their desire to get better, and their humility as a group, is very impressive I've got to say."

That suction system - where you rapidly deprive your opponents of space - is no respecter of physical size or financial clout, so Lancaster is hoping to stop dead the Northampton, Montpellier and Castres attacks when those big-budget clubs are Leinster's European opponents. The tilting of the cash axis across the continent has sobered up rugby fans in this country, though.

"I think you will get a different level of competitiveness from the Pro12 clubs than you did last year," Lancaster reckons. "I don't think any English team, or Castres and Montpellier for example, would look at Leinster and think it is going to be an easy game, and it shouldn't be. I get the sense last year they [Irish sides] began the campaign on the back of the World Cup, and if you don't start well it's hard to make up the ground, isn't it?

"I think the Irish, Welsh and Scottish teams will be competitive in Europe this year but it's going to be tough. I'm looking at our pool in particular. I know how tough Northampton are as a team and I don't think their league position is a true reflection of the quality they've got, and then you add on the fact that Montpellier are second in Top 14 and Castres fourth. . . people perceive it's Toulon or Toulouse that's the big draw you want to avoid, but Montpellier and Castres are right up there."

Before they get to that point, in a fortnight, there is the issue of Munster in the Guinness Pro12 next Saturday. Leinster hope to have shifted 35,000 tickets for the Aviva game by this weekend. The arrival of Rassie Erasmus down south and Lancaster in Dublin can only add to the appeal of a game that, according to Leinster's new man, gets good airplay across the water.

Maybe, but there is ground to be made up. Saturday needs to be high-quality rugby played in front of a 40,000-plus attendance to make a statement that European competition is something to be welcomed here more than feared.

Every step on that road will pay off for Lancaster too. His stock a year ago was in the same league as the banks in this country when the Celtic Tiger became roadkill. Outwardly this popular and thoroughly likeable man has coped remarkably well with a trauma which, by his own admission, will linger forever. From the inclusion of rugby league recruit Sam Burgess to the leadership of Chris Robshaw, there was an avalanche of bad press.

"You know, for me now I've just got to move on and get on with what is in front of me now," he says of the whole saga. "Whilst I look back and think what could I have done better, the main thing for me is about what I can do for Leinster here now because my 100 per cent commitment has to be here. And it is."

For a man on the rebound, at least he has some spring in his step.

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