Tuesday 15 October 2019

Stuart Lancaster on losing his dad last month and the joy winning the Champions Cup and Guinness Pro14 brought his family


Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Sportsfile
Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Stuart Lancaster was a year into the job at Leinster when a colleague across the water brought up the issue of Super Rugby. As in, how keen Lancaster was to work in that environment at some point in his career. At the time he had already turned the Leinster ship around, so if the info was solid then they needed to be shaking the trees for a potential replacement to continue the voyage. Succession planning demands you should always have a shortlist for that job anyway, but mercifully Leinster managed to agree a contract extension with the coach until the end of this season.

In fairness, it has suited both parties. Lancaster was highly unlikely to move too far from home until his kids had completed at least their second-level education. By the end of this season his daughter will be looking forward to her second year in Newcastle University. And her brother, who has signed an Academy contract with Leeds Carnegie, will be figuring where to go to college.

All this was foreseeable when Stuart Lancaster was trying to plot his career path once Leinster intersected with him. Like most of our plans, however, life gets in the way. Lancaster's father John died suddenly in early September, aged 78. He suffered a cardiac arrest on the family farm in Cumbria. He hadn't been ill so it was a hammer blow to the family, and to the local community where he was as well-liked as he was well-known. When we were interviewing Ulster's Will Addison in these pages a while back, he mentioned how his dad and John Lancaster would regularly chew the fat at lamb auctions in that part of the world.

As Addison painted the picture it was easy to imagine the pair of them, fathers to high-profile rugby sons, batting stuff back and forth. And to imagine the pain a father would feel for his son who was getting it in the neck after England bombed at the 2015 World Cup.

So it is a source of great happiness to Stuart Lancaster that the last chapter of his dad's life had included the story of how his son's career had come full circle. Imagine the warm rush that washed over that family when Leinster's season wrapped up with the Champions Cup and Guinness Pro14 over a fantastic fortnight in May?

"My mum did amazingly well to keep him alive really, but it was tragic - tragic really for the family, and he was such a well-respected person in the community. I did the eulogy at the funeral and one of the things I did talk about was, I was so pleased he was there in the Aviva at the end of that season, because you talk about mentors in your life. He was my mentor really and he was there for me throughout the England job. He was there at the start, the middle and the end and he was a rock really. But to see him with a smile on his face, to see me smiling, was actually the moment you strive for as a coach, and it's all that drives me really."

And he adds: "You want success for everyone, but you want to pay back your family who have supported you.

"So yeah, I was delighted he was there, and if I knew then what I know now about what was going to happen during the summer, I would have tried to get over more often - but you just don't know about these things."

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Lancaster's rugby journey since the World Cup has been as good as he could have hoped. Two-and-a-half years ago, as he was arriving on these shores, he spoke about his hopes to put the experience with England to good use, and to grow as a coach. So traumatic was that experience that it sounded a bit like saying you hoped your life would be richer for having been turfed out on the street.

Coaches losing their jobs is a regular occurrence, but Lancaster's circumstances were unique. He could have been forgiven for not going out the door again never mind putting on another tracksuit. It has been a remarkable comeback. So how would be score himself out of 10?

"I wouldn't give myself a mark but I made myself a promise that wherever I would go next, I was going to make sure I was hands-on coaching again because I probably spent too much time away from doing that. You don't go to teacher training college, you don't spend nine years as a PE teacher - when you're a PE teacher, you teach five periods a day, you plan, review your session. When I drifted away from that side I was just delighted to be given the opportunity et cetera. Plus I'm also lucky that Leo (Cullen) and I share this leadership responsibility, so you can still develop leadership as well as on-field decision-making and rugby skills within the role I've got. Plus plenty of contact time. So I'm lucky really. I'm just delighted to be given the opportunity - with good players."

It has allowed him develop a side of rugby that tends to be overlooked in the modern game: chaos. Structure is important but coping when life gets in the way and structure breaks down is what separates teams at the top level. And Leinster look comfortable when the signposts fall over and they have to cross country.

He reckons the quality of player in the Guinness Pro14 is as good as anywhere, so you're starting from a good base. And that the coaching across the board in that competition is of a high standard. In Leinster's case, however, the drive to have consistency in personnel across the board is as important as any other element in the mix.

"I think we all agreed really that we had a lot of strength in depth coming through, and we needed to allow that to flourish, number one," Lancaster says. "Number two, if you look at a company called GAIN LINE Analytics, it studies team cohesion, and the teams that generally stay at the top of any sport, if you look at baseball, American football or whatever, are the teams with the most cohesion in terms of continuity of selection, and that learning that takes place when you spend time together.

"If you are constantly chopping and changing your squad or your coaches all the time I think it's very difficult to develop that level of cohesion that it takes to win at the highest level. So that's why Leinster, when you look at the average age of the team, if you take the 2019 World Cup as the start of a new cycle, not for club necessarily but still, there's not many players who shouldn't be around to play for Ireland in the 2023 World Cup in the Leinster squad. So there's a longevity about the squad. The main thing is to keep the hunger and the mindset to keep getting better inside. That's the trick for the coaches."

It's a trick they are expected to pull off on a regular basis now. The loss of Joey Carbery to Munster is great for Joey Carbery, and only if Johnny Sexton gets injured will the trickle-down effect of that become apparent. None of which will be an issue this afternoon.

At the start of the week the prospect of Toulouse away had you thinking about Leinster's breakthrough win there in 2006. Better still, this is the first instalment of two showdowns between the only clubs with a chance this season of making it five titles. Well, technically. No one would have been pushing the Toulouse case at the start of the competition. And with both Jerome Kaino and Lucas Pointud suspended after last weekend in the Rec it tilts things even more in Leinster's favour.

So they boarded a flight yesterday clear about the expectation that follows them everywhere now. Another flight for Lancaster. This is how the last week of his schedule looked: Saturday, the morning after the Wasps game, up at 6 o'clock for the flight to Leeds. Two days over there catching up with family in between reviewing the Wasps match as well as Toulouse against Bath.

Sunday night fly back to Dublin and his 'flat', as he calls it, in Rathmines, which conjures up images of a one-bar electric fire eating into his beer money. Tuesday was supposed to be off but he spent it at Leinster's HQ. Wednesday training. Thursday, take an early flight home and catch up with the missus. Friday a 4.30am start for a 6.30am flight to Dublin to be in HQ before 8am. Yesterday fly to Toulouse. Today game, then fly back to Dublin tonight. Tomorrow he'll fly back home for the day. Tuesday fly back. At the end of this week it will be off to Treviso. And the week after that it's down to South Africa and the Kings.

"Yeah, I mean I'm certainly enjoying it here," he says of his current job. "One of the best teams at the moment in Europe, I'm really enjoying the coaching. I've never actively gone out and looked for other roles and I'm certainly not doing that now either. What the challenge is for me is making the family dynamic work, going back to the point about my dad. We've very aware that my mum is on her own now. So my priority is really to get that bit right really, make the dynamic work as best it can, if it meant Nina [his wife] coming over here to spend more time here, that would be ideal then.

"But you know, you put yourself in my wife's situation. My daughter has now gone to uni so she's left the family home; my son is in college in Hull and I'm in Dublin, so on Sunday night the three of us went our way and my wife stayed in this big house on her own with the dog, and she's like: 'What am I supposed to do?'

"So it sounds like it's not a big thing, but it actually is a big thing, I think. That's the challenge, but I think it's the challenge for a lot of people who work. It's not just in sport, but it's part of the challenge of being a professional rugby coach as well."

In fact, it's a huge thing. Lancaster has impressed everyone within and without the Leinster organisation not just with his coaching craft but in how he behaves and the values he promotes. You may recall that was the horse he rode in on when he took over the England job in the wake of the 2011 World Cup. His successor, Eddie Jones, went for the polar opposite. His Make England Great Again appealed to a fanbase who figured there was no value in humility.

Lancaster has made it cool again. So how long will he be tangled up in blue? Well that might be influenced by Leinster making life as comfortable as possible for himself and his wife. As for the southern hemisphere and a crack at Super Rugby, maybe he'll hang on until the kids are a bit further along the road. At 49, he has a lot of coaching years ahead of him. No need to plan too far ahead.

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