'They were there after the World Cup, so it was nice to have a smile on my face and trophy in my hand'
Stuart Lancaster’s road to redemption at Leinster has been well documented, but that didn’t make the scenes in Bilbao last week any less heartwarming.
LONG AFTER THE celebrations had died down, and the crowd thinned out, Stuart Lancaster remained in the thick of it.
Most of the players and other members of the coaching staff had started to make tracks for the bus home, but Leinster’s senior coach wasn’t going anywhere fast because there were fans to meet and conversations to be had.
Not only did he make time for photos and selfies but Lancaster engaged in deep conversation with older generations of fans, no doubt picking over Leinster’s Champions Cup victory over Racing 92 less than 24 hours earlier before ending each discussion with a firm handshake. And then he moved up the line.
As his wife and son waited nearby, Lancaster made time for everyone who had stayed around at Donnybrook and certainly anyone who has had the pleasure of dealing with the Englishman over the last few seasons will know this isn’t out of the ordinary.
The former England head coach’s road to redemption in Dublin has been well documented, and his influence at the province en route to a fourth European crown cannot be underestimated — he is unequivocally a world-class coach — but above all, Lancaster is a thoroughly good man.
Earlier in the season, he spent time giving a tutorial to club coaches and there have been countless other examples of the 48-year-old engaging with the community and offering his services for the betterment of Leinster rugby, as far down as grassroots level.
For all that has gone before, Lancaster is one of rugby’s nice guys, so it has come as no surprise that he has settled into his role at Leinster so seamlessly and become a hugely popular figure within the environment and province.
“It is very humbling,” he says of the support he has received from the Leinster fans.
“When I first came here the reaction of a lot of people was ‘thanks for coming’ because they obviously knew I had been in charge 50 times for England, a lot of experience coaching against Australia and New Zealand, and that can add value.
“But I think I’ve said it on the record before, Wayne Bennett [England rugby league coach] said to me only go somewhere where you 100% want to go and somewhere that 100% wants you and that’s the way it felt right from the off with Leinster.
“Not just the players, but also the staff and every member of the Leinster public I have ever met…or Irish public really. Everyone I’ve ever met have been so welcoming and supportive and the Irish mentality is very similar to where I’m from in the north of England, and I think that’s why it’s a good fit.”
After arriving in Dublin with a damaged reputation, Lancaster now appears in his element around these parts, enjoying a return to coaching first and foremost with Leo Cullen’s management skills allowing him to concentrate on nurturing the new wave coming through the province.
The weight of that ill-famed World Cup failure was likely to linger wherever Lancaster went until he achieved tangible success, but he has quickly rehabilitated his reputation and career with Leinster, and his international standing has probably never been as high.
But it has been a long road back to success and, most importantly, happiness.
Lancaster has been open and honest about his four years in charge of England and particularly the six months following the World Cup, during which he thought about ‘the nightmare’ every day.
Even before the Champions Cup final, several English journalists travelled over to Leinster’s UCD headquarters to speak to the senior coach ahead of the Bilbao showdown and, as cordial as ever, he sat down with the same writers who had — rightly or wrongly — fuelled the ugly blame game and pillorying of Lancaster in the aftermath of the 2015 tournament.
It had the potential to tear open healing wounds again, but it’s a true measure of Lancaster’s character that he has been able to put all of that behind him and make such a negative into a huge positive in a short space of time.
In the three years since that ‘nightmare’, the Englishman has used the torment and mental scars to go away and broaden his coaching experience — to lose, but learn — by immersing himself in different rugby environments while picking the brains of other coaches.
And indeed eyebrows were raised when Leinster announced his arrival back in September 2016 out of the blue, with many wondering what it meant for Cullen’s future in charge and how the arrangement would work — but the pair have worked in perfect tandem, driving the standards and guiding the province back to the summit of European rugby.
So for all those reasons, and more, the sight of Lancaster embracing his wife, Nina, and son, Daniel, inside the San Mamés Stadium last Saturday was particularly heartwarming and not just for Leinster fans.
It was a special moment and a sweet one for the Lancaster family.
“I had spotted them [his family] before the game had started, so I knew where they were sat, but as the melee ensued I lost sight of them because I was doing an interview, and I was desperately trying to find them,” he recalls.
“They walked down to the front, so I was trying to point to them because I knew that I’d be able to get them onto the pitch, and I just wanted to have a moment with them really, just to remember it all, and I FaceTimed my daughter five minutes later.
“She was at home, so it was nice for them and just a really nice moment. They were there all the way through my time with England, they were there during the World Cup and they were there at the end of the World Cup, so it’s so nice to be able to be there with a smile on my face and a trophy in my hand.
“It meant a huge amount for all my family and friends who have supported me. A lot of them stood right by my side after the World Cup, sent supportive texts and were always there saying, ‘I hope you get back’ and ‘I hope you get another opportunity.’”
The picture says it all, and then for the Lancaster family to continue the celebrations with the rest of the Leinster squad in Dublin the following day, including the homecoming in Donnybrook, was something to cherish. They are firmly part of the Leinster family.
But those joyous scenes were a stark contrast to when Lancaster arrived at Leinster a little under two years ago now, a point in time when he was still trying to rehabilitate his career and find a new direction after sinking to rock bottom.
A call from Cullen offering him a position with Leinster, who themselves were trying to find a spark, came out of the blue but such was his desire to get back into rugby, he had no hesitation in taking the opportunity and Lancaster was standing in front of the playing group at UCD within a week.
“I was actually down in London, speaking at a coaching conference,” he explains. “The number flashed up and I didn’t even recognise the area code, the +353, and then he said ‘Hello Stuart, it’s Leo Cullen here’. I said ‘How are you doing’, and you know that Leo is quite quietly spoken, and he said ‘what are you up to?’
“I said, ‘not much really’, and he said ‘do you fancy coming to Leinster?’, so I asked ‘why, what’s the opportunity?’
“Obviously then he went on to describe, and I flew over that weekend actually, on the Sunday. They played Treviso the first game of the season, and I came over on my own and met Leo and Guy [Easterby], and it all went from there really.
“It took me a couple of days to decide it was right for me. It was just a couple of days really, because I said that I would appreciate if it didn’t appear in the press because with these things, if it breaks in the press then maybe you end up having to make a reactive decision and people are then forming opinions before you’ve even had a chance to think about it.
“So Leinster were very good, and I told no one on my end. I went away, realised particularly that the commute [from Leeds to Dublin] would work from a family point of view.
“Obviously, I spoke to Andy Farrell about the quality of the team, and his enjoyment of working in Ireland, and that was it really. By the middle of the week, I had agreed that I was going to come over and start the following week, the contract got sorted in about ten minutes, and that was pretty much what happened. The following Monday morning I got the 6.30am flight from Leeds Bradford airport, arrived at 7.30am, Guy picked me up and before I knew it I was with a group of players.”
It was a particularly bold move from Cullen and the former second row deserves huge praise for showing the initiative to recruit such a high-profile coach when it could have easily compromised his position.
The acquisition of Lancaster has been one of the best pieces of business Leinster have done in recent years and then tying him down to another two-year contract last summer amid continued speculation linking him with several vacant head coach positions shows how highly he is rated — but also how much he enjoys life in Dublin.
Johnny Sexton is just one player who has regularly spoken publicly about the positive impact Lancaster has made in the dressing room and even made a point of praising him in the direct aftermath of the final in Bilbao last weekend.
There can be no doubting his credentials as a quality coach, whose meticulous attention to detail and intense training sessions has helped bring Leinster to rarefied heights and today they will look to take another step towards a first Champions Cup-Pro14 double.
As soon as he stepped inside Leinster HQ two years ago, Leinster knew there was a special group with huge potential. He just needed to get the best out of them and, boy, has he.
“My initial impression was forged on a pre-season played here against Bath and, then, we played Treviso,” he continues. “I went back through the Connacht final [Pro12 final defeat in 2016] and the European pool games [in 2016/17] where they had lost against Wasps twice.
“I knew Wasps really well, so I knew the style Wasps played, They’re the ones I picked because I wanted to see where they struggled and understand the reasons why.
“I think it was clear for me from the outset that we could fix things up defensively, not easily, but with some organisation and a different mindset and structure to defence.
“As that began to take hold, we started to work on the attack, getting more variety in our game which we progressed right the way through that season. We scored 90 tries in the league. We scored 30 tries in Europe.
“We had fantastic games all season but we lost then in the two semi-finals. I felt that the progression we needed to make this year was to be more adaptable, to have different ways of winning.
“When you are playing against the best teams in Europe with the best players and the best coaches, you can’t just play one style and expect to win. They will throw something at you which means you have to change and adapt.
“That is the progression we’ve made this year.”
And that’s exactly what Leinster did against Racing, after the French side had caused them huge problems at the breakdown and denied them the sort of clean, quick ball which had seen the province cut Saracens and Scarlets apart in the knockout stages.
But like all great teams, Leinster found a way to win.
“We talk about Leinster and the ability to play an offloading, fast flowing game. In your mind’s eye, that’s what you want it to be.
“Sometimes the opposition is going to go very hard at the breakdown. Sometimes the ball’s a bit greasy. Sometimes you’ve got incredibly physical defenders and the space is on the outside. But, you can’t quite get the ball there.
“That was very much the way the game went. With penalties on either side being kicked and missed, it became tense by the end. They cracked first. That was the bottom line.
“The penalty we got at the end was from a Garry Ringrose line break from a positive move that we instigated. So, I think positive rugby won out in the end. But, it wasn’t pretty.
“It was tough watching as a coach. But, I always had a deep belief that the players could do it, that we could do it this year.
“I really did.”
Although humbled by all the attention he has received by the players, supporters and media, Lancaster — in typically self-effacing fashion — is quick to deflect all praise in the direction of Cullen and the other coaches and backroom staff.
“I was genuinely delighted for the players and for the club and for Leo,” he adds. “I know how tough it is to be the number one. I really am pleased for him because he has put so much hard work in.
“He’s so good on detail and is quite calm, very strong integrity, excellent management skills and is very honest. That coupled with the fact none of us want to be front and centre all the time, it’s not about him, it’s about Leinster being successful and the same with me. It does work well and he’s happy for me to lead on a lot of the coaching but people talk about myself and Leo but they miss out on the fact that Girvan Dempsey, John Fogarty, Emmet Farrell do great work. I always try and broaden it out because that’s the truth. Everyone contributes to it.”
And once the celebrations ended last Sunday, Leinster’s attention turned quickly to this afternoon’s Pro14 semi-final against Munster at the RDS [KO 3.15pm, Sky Sports/TG4] as the province look to augment their European success with more silverware.
The players have spoken about turning the page this week and no better opposition to focus the minds than the sight of their southern rivals, with Lancaster stressing that the group remain as hungry as ever.
Leinster know Munster will arrive in Dublin fully charged and desperate not only to spoil the RDS party but boost their bid to claim a first trophy since 2011 having lost two domestic finals in the past four years.
It has all the ingredients to be an absolute cracker.
“I don’t think anyone is under any illusions of the challenge of Saturday,” he says.
“A very strong Munster side and they’re coming to the RDS with one goal in mind and that’s to beat Leinster at the RDS.
“The motivation has to be strong and the big thing for me this week was to enjoy the moment but get straight back to work, take the lessons from the Racing game and build the mindset.
“We realise it’s going to be a significant challenge and nobody is going to get ahead of themselves, trust me.”