Tuesday 15 October 2019

The prospect of Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster returning to England post is not so far-fetched

Stuart Lancaster. Picture: Sportsfile
Stuart Lancaster. Picture: Sportsfile

Sam Peters

When Stuart Lancaster was marched unceremoniously to the Twickenham gates with his P45 in hand following England’s disastrous 2015 World Cup exit three years the prospect of him ever returning in a coaching capacity were considerably less than slim.

Vilified and derided for the ill-thought through and poorly managed attempt to convert Sam Burgess from a world-class rugby league player into a union international in record time, Lancaster carried the can for a collective meltdown which led to England becoming the first host nation ever to be knocked out in the pool stages.

A year later, and still looking for a job, Lancaster had also parted company from his management company, while a contingent of Harlequins’ England players warned CEO David Ellis against appointing him when Conor O’Shea announced he was taking over as Italy head coach.

Few in the game thought he would ever again be a serious candidate for international coaching honours.

Sunday, following two years of sustained success as a senior coach at Leinster, where he has convinced some of Europe’s finest players he is the real deal, the odds on a Lancaster return have shortened dramatically.

The fact he is even an option speaks volumes for his own strength of character as much as it does for the lack of interest shown by other home-grown coaches in a job which, by its very nature, is all consuming.

“No, not a problem, why would it would be a problem?” said the RFU’s interim CEO Nigel Melville last week when asked if Lancaster’s return would be an issue for the Union that sacked him so recently. “I’ll talk to anyone who has the requisite talent to do the job for us.”

But while a Lancaster return when Eddie Jones’s contract expires in 2021 may still stretch the imagination, consider what else happened last week: almost every other serious British candidate ruled themselves out.

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Rob Baxter, Exeter’s highly-regarded director of rugby, has seen his stock fall for the first time this season following his team’s latest failed attempt to even make a dent on the European Champions Cup but even if he were to be approached, would he accept?

“It would be unlikely if I’m honest with you,” Baxter said. “There’s loads of attractive reasons for it, but the attractive reasons have got to outweigh what you want in your life at any given time, and at the moment what I have in my life here in Exeter is more important to me.”

Richard Cockerill, the former Leicester director of rugby who is helping turn Edinburgh’s fortunes since taking over last summer, appears similarly minded to Baxter.

“I am not sure that is a conversation the union will be having with me anytime soon,” Cockerill said. “Guys have come out in the last few days and said they are probably not interested. It is such a high-pressure job and it is almost sometimes a hiding to nothing.”

Then we have Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall, the best qualified of all in terms of his coaching track-record, but an intensely private man who has no interest in stepping away from the empire he has built in St Albans, where he has won two European Cups in the past three years.

The RFU have repeatedly displayed a willingness to buy coaches out of contracts if they believe they are the right person for the job but McCall is a man of his word who is unlikely to renege on the deal with the club where he has made his name.

“I have signed a deal here for the next three seasons after this one, and all of the coaches have signed up to that,” McCall said last week. “We are really happy here and we think there is a lot more we can achieve with the group we have.”

Some have touted Newcastle director of rugby Dean Richards, almost a decade after the Bloodgate scandal threatened to end his career in rugby, but anyone who has spoken even briefly with the former Harlequins boss knows he’s a non-starter.

Richards holds a deep-seated distrust of the media – which he believes treated him unfairly after he facilitated a culture where using fake blood capsules to manipulate substitution rules was deemed entirely normal – and is prickly and defensive in the public spotlight.

He has done astonishingly well to resurrect his club coaching career but the reality is that his elevation to the England job would be a car crash waiting to happen.

“When someone suggested it I laughed because I have absolutely no interest in it at all,” Richards said. “I just don’t fancy it. It is a totally different job to being a director of rugby at a club. There is more politics, more dealing with the media. All the stuff that I find very difficult and don’t like, you’d be expected to do more of. It takes a special person to do the international job.”

Dean Ryan and Steve Borthwick have both been mentioned in dispatches but Ryan, currently the RFU’s head of international player development, lacks credibility in the eyes of top players while Borthwick would also be deeply uncomfortable with the level of media exposure which goes hand in hand with the top job. For the time being, he is an excellent number two.

With Andy Farrell snapped up by Ireland, serious home grown coaching talent is thin on the ground. Steve Diamond for England, anyone?

So back to Lancaster. Three years anyone suggesting he would one day return to England as head coach would have been laughed out of town. All of a sudden the prospect doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched after all.

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