Sunday 17 December 2017

Stuart Lancaster: 'You can't spend the rest of your life looking back and thinking what if'

3 October 2016; Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster during squad training at UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
3 October 2016; Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster during squad training at UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Steve James

It was a shock, not least to the bulk of the Leinster squad. Imagine their surprise on a Monday morning about five weeks ago, having just beaten Treviso in their opening match of the season, when head coach Leo Cullen arrived at training with a new coach already kitted out in Leinster gear.

It was only Stuart Lancaster.

And, of the players, only Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, who had been sounded out about his possible arrival, knew that he was coming.

“It was amazing how quiet it was kept,” explains Lancaster. “Normally these things get out somehow. There were only three people behind the scenes and those two, Johnny and Isa, who knew. I walked in alongside Leo. He introduced me and explained my role and I said a few words of what I wanted to do in terms of helping Leinster to achieve the sort of success they had before. That was 9am on the Monday, and by 11am I was standing in front of the squad giving a defensive analysis of their last season and some thoughts on how we were going to move forward as a team.”

It was time for Lancaster to return to top-flight rugby. The months had been ticking by since he left the England job last November. Everyone knows that the longer you are absent, the harder it is to return. And Lancaster deserved to return.

There was too much blind and angry claptrap written and spoken after that calamitous Rugby World Cup exit last year. A good man was often kicked when he was down.

It ignored the mess that Lancaster had inherited, as well as the fact that his team had won nine of their 11 Tests and he had brought through so many young players before the fateful 15 minutes against Wales that all but sealed their RWC demise.

He can coach. And that is what he has been doing plenty of in the last year, even if an agreeable enough full-time post had not presented itself until Leinster called.

Indeed, when I ask him what exactly he has been up to, it is so much that he jokes that “it might take up the whole article”. 

But to précis, as well as some precious family time, it involved time spent in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at various clubs, a period in America where he helped with the setting up of the PRO Rugby league, as well as coaching some tackling techniques with the NFL franchise, Atlanta Falcons.

He coached locally in Yorkshire and, just before receiving the call from Cullen about Leinster, was coaching in New Zealand at Counties Manukau in the Mitre 10 Cup.

I wonder whether maybe one day he might look back at this period as being hugely beneficial in his growth as a coach.

“It didn’t feel like it at the time,” he laughs. “Although I was hugely appreciative of the opportunities people gave me. You never stop learning as a coach, but I also felt that I gave a lot as well. I didn’t want to go to these places and just take, take.”

It seems strange that Ireland should now be benefiting, but in truth it is probably best Lancaster is out of England for now.

“There is certainly less emotional baggage than in England for obvious reasons,” he admits. “I have always wanted to coach outside of England at some point, and this is the perfect opportunity to do it.”

After the sad departure of defence coach Kurt McQuilkin for family reasons, Lancaster is now a ‘senior coach’ at Leinster, but Cullen is above him.

Is that a problem for a man at the helm of such a huge organisation as England rugby for four years?

“Not being head coach was never an issue at all,” he says. “I know being a head coach how big a role it is, and how much it involves off-the-field stuff. I was keen to get back on the field.”

For towards the end of his England tenure Lancaster was doing less and less of what he enjoys most: on-field coaching.

“In the lead up to the World Cup the sheer size of trying to manage that operation meant I definitely didn’t coach as much as I would have liked,” he admits.

He could have done with a team manager like Richard Hill, whom Eddie Jones has just appointed.

“One of the recommendations we discussed in the (post-World Cup) review was that the head coach might benefit from having a team manager,” he says. “When I started, however, there were lots of things that needed work both on and off the field to put the foundations in place. Now they are, I think it is a good decision and I am sure it will help Eddie and free him up to do the on-field stuff, which is what you are judged on.”

Ah, the World Cup. We have been skirting around it a little. I ask how often he thinks about it or is asked about it now.

“The main reminders come from journalists,” he laughs. “You can’t help but think about it, not just the World Cup but your experiences. Coaching at Leinster I am inevitably drawn back to things that went well with England, and things that didn’t go so well. But now I am 100 per cent looking forward. You can’t spend the rest of your life looking back and thinking ‘what if?’ because you would drive yourself mad.”

Sometimes reminders are unavoidable, though, like when Lancaster bumped into Wales’ Dan Biggar just before Leinster’s recent match with the Ospreys. Biggar, with 23 points in the 28-25 defeat by Wales, could easily be said to have booted Lancaster out of a job.

“It was the first time I have seen him since the World Cup,” says Lancaster. “So I just punched him. No, I’m only joking! I just shook his hand and said: ‘How you doing? Good to see you’. I think all players and coaches who have operated at international level know the margins. Wales have had their times when they have been disappointed and know what it feels like to lose, so there is that mutual respect. I certainly respect Dan hugely as a player and person.”

There will be more meetings like that, not least with some of his former England charges at Northampton, who are in Leinster’s European Champions Cup Pool.

But more important is qualification from that Pool. No team from the Guinness Pro12 reached the knockout stages last season.

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