Only last week a man in South Africa was telling us how lucky was Leinster's timing that their two-match tour there was next up. Gloriously sunny weather, an opportunity to give game time to lots of players gagging for a run - what could go wrong? Even Covid-19, he said, wasn't the wall-to-wall issue it had become in Europe. "This is South Africa," he declared, in that modest way of theirs. "You'd need to be a tough virus to survive down here." Then the shutters came down.
The reality is none of us are certain when they will be pulled back up. So even the timing of the reintegration of the Ireland contingent on the training field has become hard to nail down. Stuart Lancaster looks fairly wrecked after another long day in limbo. And then a media interview. Yes!
Professional athletes and coaches live by the schedule. Mess it up at the last minute and they lose focus, and become irritable. Which is how Lancaster sounds. He fears another cavity search on the subject of what happened with England in a previous lifetime.
"I'm tired of talking about it to be honest," he says, before we can even ask has he washed his hands. "It was five years ago."
Interviewees are never more unconvincing than when they tell you what they think the punter wants to read.
"It's the coaching stuff that I think people have found interesting, recently," he adds.
Senior coach Stuart Lancaster, left, and head coach Leo Cullen during Leinster Rugby squad training. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
So culture, a fairly fundamental plank in building your coaching bridge, is another subject, he says, on which his tank is empty. It was full to the brim when he drove into the England carpark as their interim coach in 2012, a gig he nailed soon enough. He is sounding like a man who feels unfairly portrayed as a seller of beads, hugger of trees, and catwalk model for sandals, when in fact he is a shoe salesman.
Whatever, having drawn his lines in the sand he doesn't jump up and down about the incoming tide.
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There is a touch of the Warren Gatlands about Stuart Lancaster. The Kiwi never forgave Ireland for turfing him when, as a young, inexperienced coach, he felt the icy wind of World Cup failure full in the face. Never mind that he went on to have a stellar coaching career, the chapter on Ireland was like an ulcer that flared from time to time.
It was made clear to us in advance of this interview that Lancaster would run a mile from anything that might give ammunition to our media colleagues across the water. Fair enough. Having got a sustained kicking at the time, why submit to more of the same when he had reinvented himself so successfully.
Truly, the marriage between Lancaster and Leinster has been one of modern rugby's greatest stories. So it's hard not to wonder how the cards might have fallen if they hadn't walked up the aisle. Specifically, how frustrating is it for coaches who get jilted at a time when their bank of experience is bursting? For Gatland is was like putting a screw in his head.
In Lancaster's case we get caught on the 2015 World Cup hook. His record en route to that point was four back-to-back second place finishes in the Six Nations, winning four from five games in each of those campaigns.
Moreover he was doing it with a new, young group. Unless you're coaching New Zealand you can't build experience in Test rugby without having your ass handed to you on a plate. The context of Lancaster's journey in the job was that his players were running pretty fast to keep up. Surely, when the World Cup then went south, he was afraid that this raft of experience could float off in some backwater?
"I don't think afraid is the right word," he says, uneasily, and reels off the stuff he did to keep busy, and stay sane and employable. "But I didn't know where the next opportunity was going to come from really. I don't think anyone does when you're in a situation like that. Then it was September 2016 when out of the blue Leo (Cullen) rang. I hadn't parked what I'd learned. I tried to develop what I'd learned, or reflected on what I'd learned, and use that window between November 2015 and September 2016, so when I came to Leinster I suppose they did get the benefit of not just England, or Leeds, or back to being a teacher, or Academy manager, and all the things in between. So people have said to me: 'You must have been pleased to have come to Leinster.' I was like delighted! Because it was a fantastic opportunity with a great team."
If you have listened to his podcasts - a good forum for him to explain what he's about - you'll appreciate how he values clarity, cohesion and competition. The last bit is the insurance policy. If players understand what the team is trying to achieve, and run through it on the training ground repeatedly, you get the first two nailed down. Well, you do if it's collective: seniors, development, and academy lads rehearsing the same lines together. When you have good players to start with, and they begin competing hard for each other's places, then you're far less likely to have those days when you fall off the edge of the cliff.
At the risk of pushing Lancaster over that precipice, we wonder if the World Cup game with Wales in 2015 might have had a happier ending if they had more of the three Cs?
"Possibly. There's no doubt that in the lead up to big games I think cohesion is critical, and in a team that's evolving and you're introducing young players who maybe haven't played an international game before there's got to be an element of learning that takes place. And that was happening obviously consistently between 2012 and 2015. Injuries play a part as well. So you might have this notion of what your best team is - Owen Farrell for example missed the whole of the Six Nations in 2015 so the opportunity to play him and George Ford together at 10-12, as Eddie Jones is doing now, wasn't there. So there's things like that.
"The windows are so short as an international coach - they're in and then they're out. So there's definitely an advantage for me coming to Leinster because there was a lot of cohesion when I arrived, in terms of the playing group being relatively stable. There were a couple of new players coming through. I think Ben Te'o had left - there weren't many who had left when I arrived. And when I looked around the room the lads had been playing together for maybe five-ten years. That cohesion was there. And they'd obviously won Europe (four years earlier). I think I just brought a little more clarity to the game plan in both attack and defence. And the second thing that happened was the integration of the Academy players into the senior playing group created the competition you refer to, which then drives standards. I think the quote I gave (previously) was 'competition kills complacency'."
So when you said a while back that Leinster need to understand that the model they have is a good one, you were ploughing the same furrow? Surely they already get that?
"I wasn't saying that casually at all. In my previous job, prior to coaching England, I had to assess the effectiveness of the 14 Academies around the country. So I understand the appraisal process. I understand what it takes to build a strong Academy. We actually created a red/amber/green system to assess and score them. If I took that template from England into Leinster and assessed Leinster on it I'd say it would get green in virtually every area.
"It's good for a reason and people need to understand the reason so they can hold on to it and continue it. So, things like an effective talent pool, strong connections, quality coaching in the age-grade system, good players in clubs, good players in schools, educational support, links to universities. And good links to club rugby for players who aren't quite ready to play professional rugby; strong links between the Academy staff and the senior staff, and a connection between the senior playing group and the Academy. These things you might say: 'They're obvious.' But they don't exist in every organisation."
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It's fair to say a few of those elements are not to be found in Leeds, where he still has an emotional investment. Currently Leinster's winning run, starting with the Pro14 semi-final against Munster last season, and including early season friendlies, is at 24. Yorkshire Carnegie prop up England's Championship, with zero wins from 14 this season. Lancaster's son is in the playing squad.
"I help out when I can," he says. "Phil Davies is there now and he was head coach of the club when I was there as a player. He was the one who gave me my first opportunity as an Academy manager. So when time allows at home I'll try and sit down with him and give him some advice on how best to improve the situation. But that's a great example of a team that came together in August after the previous team had finished. They brought a new team together at the last minute and lo and behold there's no cohesion, and the quality of player is probably a step below Championship. So they've got two issues: one, the quality; and two, the cohesion.
"But you've got to remember that I've come from that level. I spent my formative years as a player training Tuesday, Thursday and play Saturday. When I did the Academy at Leeds from 2002-2005 it was the same: Tuesday, Thursday, play Saturday. I coached at every level of the game from under-five, under-eight, under-10, under-12, school, rep school teams, club teams, university teams, Academy team, Championship team, Premiership team. So I can view it through their lens.
"I'll give you an example: over here I was talking at the GAA [coaching] conference at Croke Park and I think people thought I'd talk about, you know, Leinster and professionals. 'No,' I said, 'I come from your environment - Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. And this is my advice on how I would maximise my time if I was going back to train Tuesday, Thursday, play Saturday.' And I created a 10 point list of things I would do if I were coaching at that level, be it GAA or domestic rugby."
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The ill wind that blew the Pro14 off course brought some good for Stuart Lancaster. Originally the schedule had him flying back to Leeds on Thursday night, then back to Dublin on the Friday before heading down to South Africa with the squad. At least this way he gets an extra bit of time at home.
On the flight back to Dublin he might be putting the finishing touches to the plan for the next session, whenever exactly that may be. It will start with players understanding 'why' before they deal with 'how'. And it will be inclusive. The culture demands that only a single entity will deliver consistent success. Not a million miles from what Saracens, Leinster's next scheduled opponents, would have been saying a while back. Maybe that's a C word gone wrong?
"No, I haven't got involved in the ins and outs of what's happened in the last six months but there's one thing to say: I've seen the growth of Saracens off the field as well as on the field and there is a genuineness about how they build their connections with their players. They were one of the first teams to employ a player development officer whose job was to bring in external speakers. They actively went out and supported them with work experience opportunities. This isn't something that's salary cap stuff. It's just looking after the players. So there's a strong connection in the playing group to each other, and I think that will extend through to this Champions Cup campaign because ultimately this is what they've got left to fight for.
"They know they're going to be in the Championship next year. They're effectively back in Saracens now and may have one or two games before they play us, but there's only one game that matters to them. They want to finish this season of all seasons because the playing group will change - the players are already going out on loan. They'll want to finish their time together with the European trophy. We're all sat here on a day when the Pro14 has been suspended, so who knows what's going to happen?"
If it goes ahead - and in the current climate that's only a hope - it will be the biggest non-Test game of the calendar year?
"Yeah. And it's a shame it's a quarter-final actually, and that's the reward for coming first - playing Saracens who finished eighth! Who would have thought that? But we also need to remember that the season doesn't finish on the fourth of April. The season ends on the 20th of June, and for us we have to make sure we continue to get better, and improve."
He bridles a bit when you mention the Maro Itoje line in Newcastle last year, where the second-row said Saracens felt unstoppable. The landscape has changed shape for them since then. For Lancaster too, but only to paint an even better picture. Surely the commute, three and a half years so far of dragging himself over and back across the Irish sea, is exhausting?
"It's never been a burden or a problem really. The biggest issue is not the commute - I don't mind the drive to the airport; I don't mind the airport; I don't mind the flight: it's just the lack of time being together with your family. That's the biggest thing. If you were to count the number of nights my wife and I sleep in the same bed it's certainly less than a hundred, over the course of a year. And that's tough on her cos she's at home looking after everything. And it's also tough because my contact time with my children, who are important to me, is lessened as well. They're 18 and 19 and that's been the case ever since 2007 when I joined the RFU. Now the commute from Leeds to London, trust me, is worse than Leeds to Dublin. There's no easy way to get to Twickenham from Leeds other than sitting in a car for five hours or get three trains that would take five hours anyway.
"So that's the bit that's constantly on my mind: how do I maximise my time with them? And not only that: my immediate family are very important but my extended family are important. My mum is on her own now after my dad passed away so I'm trying to spin all the plates and see my wife and the kids and get up to see my mum in Cumbria. So the commute doesn't bother me, but the time away from home does. But the alternative that year when I arrived in Leinster was Queensland Reds or Toulon. So I wasn't going to live in Brisbane on my own, or we weren't all going to move there; and I wasn't going to live in the south of France on my own, or we weren't going to move there. There's no full-time professional team in Leeds anymore.
"It's probably something that people don't appreciate: the challenge for the families if you're in professional sport, playing or coaching. The easy thing to do would be to say: 'Actually this is too difficult - I'll get a job at the local school. That would be nice'."
Maybe that's how it will end?
"Maybe it will. It wouldn't bother me going back into teaching. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed teaching a variety of sports; I enjoyed coaching children of all ages. But equally there's a great project I'm involved in here (at Leinster): to build a team that's right at the top of European rugby for the foreseeable future."
You wonder where he sees himself on that journey. For example with Eddie Jones, Lancaster's successor in England, he has put down five years in that job and sounds like he's losing the run of things rather than controlling the public conversation, something he once did so well.
"I'm very settled," Lancaster says. "And very happy. I'm not sat here feeling that I've given all I can give and it's coming to the end. I don't feel like that at all."