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'It’s so hard to leave a successful team' - Lancaster explains Leinster exit

The former England head coach discusses why he has decided to join Racing 92 next summer.

Lancaster during a Leinster training session on Monday.
Lancaster during a Leinster training session on Monday.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

WHEN STUART LANCASTER joined Leinster, he started a list. Every time he learned something new or was exposed to a different way of thinking, he’d jot it down.

Yesterday Lancaster referenced that list when the time came to tell the Leinster squad that he would be moving on at the end of the season. 

“Someone said something to me at a meeting the other day and I got my list out again, wrote it down and it was number 158,” Lancaster explains.

“That’s 158 lessons learned since I’ve been here. That’s not me passing on lessons, that’s me learning from people here, whether it’s the players or the staff, and a lot of them have come from Leo (Cullen) as well.”

The Cullen-Lancaster partnership which has brought Leinster so much success over the years will come an end next summer, with Lancaster now confirmed to be joining French side Racing 92.

“When Leo rang (in 2016) and I first took that Leeds-Dublin flight… I remember realising it was commutable and I’d only signed for that season.

“I was only walking back through the airport last night, thinking ‘I wonder how many times I’ve done this flight in the last seven years?’ And I have never once sat the airport in Leeds-Bradford’s and thought ‘I don’t want to get on this plane’. I’ve always wanted to come. I’ve always wanted to coach the players, I’ve always wanted to be involved and that’s what makes it such a hard place to leave because you have got such good people, good values, great academy, great football players I have coached. Yeah, it was tough telling the players today.”

stuart-lancaster Lancaster joined Leinster in 2016. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Now in his seventh season with the province, Lancaster has spent more time with Leinster than he has in any of his previous coaching roles.

There have been offers to leave over the years, but Leinster felt like the place to be. Which begs the questions why now, and why Racing?

“There were opportunities over the last few years, definitely. Some of them were when I was in contract, and I was never going to leave Leinster? It was obviously a timing thing as well. Some was when I was coming out of contract.

I guess you would have to speak to someone like Ronan O’Gara, someone like that, but the challenge for me would be to go outside my comfort zone and go to an environment that I have never coached in before and try and become successful there. That was probably the thing that drove me the most. And obviously to try and go back to a number one coaching position.

“When I felt that they (Racing) 100% wanted me to come, that’s the first time my head has been turned away from Leinster, because of the way they went about it.”

The move came about after Racing decided to re-jig their own coaching structure. Current Racing boss Laurent Travers is stepping up to become chairman of the club’s management board at the end of the season, and Lancaster will join as director of rugby on a four-year contract. The new job see Lancaster take his first French lessons since his schooldays.

“I wouldn’t have made the decision to do it if I wasn’t confident in the people (at Racing). So that was probably the deciding factor, really.

“They were certain it was the right thing for Racing, that they wanted someone coming in from the outside of France to coach the team.

“Now I raised the language issue and they said, ‘no, no, no, we still think it’s the right thing’. And obviously, I’m not going to not learn the language, I’m going to do my best to learn it as best as I can until I get there and when I get there, hopefully within six to 12 months I’ll be good enough to coach in French, that’s the plan.

So I don’t think the language will be an issue in the end, it will work itself out. And coaching’s coaching, it’s images, it’s how you explain things and how you walk through things and the sessions are often not about an awful lot of communication, they’re organisation and detail and intensity.

“I think I can bring all that and hopefully help them to improve.”

At this stage of his career Lancaster is keen to be the main man again, having being sacked as England head coach following the disappointment of the 2015 World Cup, where the host nation failed to qualify from their pool. The fallout was tough on Lancaster and his family.

He has since rebuilt his reputation at Leinster, where his position on the coaching ticket has been an interesting one. Officially labelled ‘senior coach’, Lancaster spends most of his week running the team on the training pitch while Cullen takes on more of a background role, overseeing the bigger picture. Leinster could look to stick with that structure when replacing Lancaster, and they won’t have to look far from home to find some interesting CVs.

Former Crusaders coach Andrew Goodman, who joined as attack coach over the summer, has made a strong impression in his first weeks with the province, while Johnny Sexton’s name will surely be in the mix, should he look to make the step into coaching.

“I think clubs have more and more adopted a similar model to what Leinster have,” Lancaster continues.

“So a lot of clubs have now got the, Leo in the sort of director of rugby role, general manager in Guy (Easterby) and then me as a head coach. Connacht have gone down that route for example.

So yeah, I think Robin McBryde, Andrew Goodman, people like that. They could easily want to do it, we’ve not discussed it obviously because it’s only just come out really. But Johnny I think is going to be full on. He’s full on wanting to win with Leinster and win a World Cup with Ireland. So I think the last thing on his mind at the moment is thinking he’s going to become head coach of Leinster. And rightly so, as a player you have to be focused on being a player.

“But yeah, internally it could happen. The good thing is from Leinster’s point of view there’s plenty of time now to go out there, look around and see what’s the best structure and the best environment and if I can help in any way I will.

“Felipe (Contepomi) left last year, announced it to the playing group maybe three months before he was leaving, but again you didn’t notice anything in terms of deviation in his commitment to the club in the meantime.

jonathan-sexton-with-stuart-lancaster Lancaster has formed a strong relationship with Johnny Sexton. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Obviously Leo is very good at working in the background and speaking to people, and again, he was the one who persuaded Andrew to come from the Crusaders, which is an amazing thing really, isn’t it?

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“I was only speaking to Goodie yesterday about him leaving the Crusaders to come here. It’s not dissimilar from me… It’s so hard to leave a successful team and it’s a reflection of the culture I think that Leinster have created that it makes it such a hard place to leave.”

The decision to leave was clearly not an easy one for Lancaster, but he is equally excited about tackling a new challenge.

“The opportunity Leinster gave me back in 2016 and what has resulted from that has really made me the coach I am really, because I’d left the England job, and there wasn’t really a huge number of offers at the time.”

Six years on, Lancaster is a man in demand again.

Leaving the training pitch yesterday, his phone pinged with a new message, sent from France. Ronan O’Gara hasn’t done too badly himself in French rugby and is already looking forward to taking on a Stuart Lancaster-led Racing team.

“We’ll still be good friends, we speak quite often,” Lancaster says of his relationship with O’Gara.

“I admire what he’s done. He did it, not in a safer way, but he went as an assistant and he learned under the coaching team at the time and then he went to New Zealand. He had a good basis of the language and then he went to La Rochelle as a No 2 and became a No 1.

“I’ve just jumped straight in. He’s probably thinking I must be mad, but it’s exciting.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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