In these halcyon days of Leinster Rugby, it’s easy to forget the low ebb the province found itself at this time two years ago. A convincing defeat in the Pro 12 final to Connacht coupled with a discouraging fourth-place finish in their Champions Cup pool meant a second straight season without silverware. For a team that had amassed a haul of seven major trophies in seven years, such a dry spell must have felt uncanny at least.
As the 16/17 season beckoned, even the most buoyant of fans would not have bet the ranch on a steady improvement on the prior year’s harvest. An improvement on the previous year’s European performance seemed plausible; a return to the Cheika-Schmidt glory days too far-fetched. This uninspiring probability prompted the Leinster Board to act. There needed to be an improvement, a shake-up. Cue Stuart Lancaster, the forgotten man of world rugby.
While the ignominy of England’s untimely World Cup exit had subsided somewhat, Lancaster was still reeling from the hostile nature of his departure. Viewed objectively, his England tenure can be viewed as middling if not mildly successful. Apart from the abundance of young players introduced to the England fold, Lancaster led his team to four consecutive second-placed finishes in the Six Nations.
Winning four out of five matches in each of these, Lancaster could easily have at least two titles to his name, with England having missed out on points difference on three occasions. The brand of rugby was also exhilarating and expansive at a time when rugby was becoming increasingly tactical, contrived and was detaching itself from the swashbuckling running rugby of the amateur era. His reign also included a thumping victory over New Zealand, the nation’s first in eleven years.
Disappointingly, a lot of this success is overshadowed by the emotion of the World Cup failure where one bad result against Wales and more specifically, one bad decision by captain Chris Robshaw ensured a pool-stage departure. Sport being the cruel business it is, Lancaster made way for Eddie Jones to take charge. Not one to dwell in self-pity, Lancaster used his time away from the game productively. He spent time in New Zealand to help younger coaches and broaden his knowledge of the game, but, most interesting was the time he spent helping American football outfit, Atlanta Falcons. Last year, in the wake of the Falcons most successful season in two decades, it was revealing how their head coach praised Lancaster for his input during a week-long visit the previous year.
So, by the time the Cumbrian had linked-up with Leinster, the England job was very much in the distant past. Lancaster’s first interaction with his new charges was a telling one, a statement of intent. His declaration that he wanted to lead the province to European glory again was something few players expected to hear. After all, since their last coronation in 2012, Leinster had never really threatened Europe’s elite, save for a spirited run to the semi-finals in the Matt O’Connor reign (finishing fifth in the league that year).
But with Leinster legend Leo Cullen alongside him, Lancaster immediately began making a profound impact. In his first week, after a defeat to Glasgow, the Englishman delivered the video review on attack and defence that was reportedly both astoundingly technical and exhaustive. The first season saw quite an improvement in Europe, with an agonising defeat away to Clermont proving just how far the team had come in relatively short space of time.
All the while, the Cullen-Lancaster consociation was proving a source of intrigue, the recurring question revolving around who exactly has the final call. Cullen’s title of “head coach” is evidently a misnomer -as is the “senior coach” tag ascribed to Lancaster . While driving a highly- efficient lineout operation, Cullen is effectively a director of rugby, dealing with the IRFU, comforting players who have been dropped, overseeing administrative procedures and much to Lancaster’s liking, dealing with the media. Being the self-effacing man that he is, Lancaster publicly says “Leo has the final say” and the Irish media are, quite naturally, only too willing to subscribe to this narrative. The English media follow a different tact however, having branded the team “Lancaster’s Leinster” since he arrived.
But as is so often the case in sport, it is the players or athletes who provide insight into the true situation. And so, it was telling that in the aftermath of their European crowning in May, how lavish the praise for the Englishman was. The praise for Cullen- done more so out of politeness- was underwhelming in comparison and that in itself was revealing. One player after the other- key players especially- extolled the virtues of Lancaster. The team’s maestro, Jonathan Sexton was fulsome in his praise labelling Lancaster a “special coach”. Dan Leavy also suggested that the recent success would have been impossible without him, hailing how he “revolutionised the way we train and the standards we expect of each other.”
Ever the high-achiever, hardly an hour had passed since Leinster’s European triumph in Bilbao than Lancaster was looking towards next year’s final in Newcastle. A win in his native northern England would elevate this sporting revolutionary to the pantheon of all-time great rugby coaches. And given his golden touch thus far, it would be a brave punter to bet against him.
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer