Friday 23 August 2019

Stuart Lancaster's future adds extra layer of intrigue to Leinster's Bath visit

23 October 2018; Senior coach Stuart Lancaster during Leinster Rugby squad training at UCD Belfield in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
23 October 2018; Senior coach Stuart Lancaster during Leinster Rugby squad training at UCD Belfield in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In what feels like a previous lifetime now we remember covering Garryowen v Bath in Dooradoyle.

You'd need a lot of health and safety folks on hand if they were to meet now, but even then - in September 1993 - it was heavily lopsided. Bath came fully loaded, which meant Lions No 8 Ben Clarke, fresh from the tour to New Zealand a few months previously, was the brightest of many stars.

Naturally enough, Bath hacked up. They were the pre-eminent side in England at the time and they had that perfect balance between men with a hard edge and men with soft hands. Their rivalry with Leicester was the main attraction of English club rugby in that era. And Bath were always the better side to watch.

There was a time when Leinster were their equivalent in Ireland. In the days when there was still county rugby across the water, the South West Division would come over to Donnybrook. They were mostly a combo of Bath, Bristol and Gloucester players.

At the time Leinster were comfortably the best province in Ireland, and played like they wanted to entertain as much as they wanted to win. That kind of attitude was a rarity in those days.

It took long enough after the professional era dawned before we had remodelled versions of Bath and Leinster bumping into each other in the Heineken Cup. It was pitting against each other teams with an appreciation of style. And that always added to the fixture.

The game in the Rec next Saturday will be the tenth time the sides have met in Europe. Leinster have won seven of the nine.

Their second defeat in the series came away from home in 2015/'16 when - hard to fathom - Leinster were en route to finishing bottom of the pool with one win from six. Leo Cullen was struggling big time with the new coaching world he had landed in.

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His opposite number that season, Mike Ford, was seeing his star decline having enjoyed the unique double of winning the coach of the year award the previous season while his son George picked up the player's gong. Ford would be gone a year later.

Coincidentally, the coaching issue will be simmering away beneath the surface next weekend as well. Two years on from their last meeting, Cullen is in a stronger spot, but facing the possibility of losing Stuart Lancaster at the end of the season. To none other than Bath.

The former England coach is much in demand, hardly a surprise given the enormously positive impact he has had on Leinster. They are desperate to keep him, and will be in a position to make a competitive offer. The key issue is where he lives.

Lancaster's head is melted flying over and back from England every week, on top of the substantial travel involved in the normal run of games in any club. The situation has been complicated now by the sudden death of his father last September and the challenge that presents for his mother.

Given that Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper has a good relationship with Lancaster going back to their time together at Leeds; that Todd Blackadder's contract extension with Bath takes him until June 2020; and that in club boss Bruce Craig they have perhaps the biggest moneybags in the Premiership - does that add up to ducks being lined up in a row? Our understanding is that it does. In September, Bath CEO Tarquin McDonald wrote an open letter to supporters who were becoming increasingly restless over the club's future.

As an addendum to the news that Blackadder's contract would be extended by a year, he wrote: "Todd has committed that he will move on when the club is ready."

Bath are in the wrong half of the table going into this afternoon's Premiership tie with Sale Sharks, and will have a day less to prepare for Saturday's Champions Cup tie. That's questionable readiness. They'll have their work cut out.

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