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'When you get a Stuart Lancaster, you get a Klopp, a Guardiola, the best coach in world rugby'

Leinster made an inspired choice when they appointed Stuart Lancaster in 2016 – they now face an even harder task to find his replacement.

Lancaster holds the European Cup.
Lancaster holds the European Cup.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

PART ONE: THE LEGACY

IT APPEARED TO be more of a therapy session than the launch of a successful era.

We are referring to the coming together in September 2016 of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster. One was inexperienced, the other damaged by experience. In Cullen, Leinster had a head coach with just two-years-work under his belt, only one as head honcho, a job he was initially trusted with on a mere caretaker basis.

It hadn’t gone well, certainly not in Europe, where Leinster won just one pool game out of six in Cullen’s first year. Results in the Pro12 were better but how could they not be? That league lacked both quality and depth back then. Leinster made it to the final but were then ambushed by Connacht.

They looked like a team in decline. Under Joe Schmidt they had won four trophies in three years but when Schmidt left for the Ireland job in 2013, the next three years brought Leinster only one piece of silverware. More to the point, it didn’t look like it’d get better any time soon.

Then there was Lancaster. He’d been catapulted into the England job at an early age, had taken the All Blacks’ scalp at a time when that was a precious prize to get and had enjoyed four solid years in charge …until the 2015 World Cup. As hosts, England had hopes of winning it. They didn’t even get out of their pool. Lancaster was out of work.

Eleven months later he was sitting in the office of a man he’d never met. It was a Sunday morning. Mick Dawson, the Leinster chief executive, is the one who discovered Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt. On this occasion he was facilitating the marriage of Cullen and Lancaster.

Together the pair have won five trophies in six years and taken Leinster to another two European finals. Strangers prior to meeting that day in 2016, they’ve become a formidable duo since, Cullen the front of shop guy, Lancaster the shipper of goods into the store. But on Tuesday this week, Lancaster confirmed the partnership was coming to an end, that he was joining Racing 92 next June.

Since the announcement, The42 has spoken to Dawson, Cullen, a former England player, a former Ireland coach, an ex-Leinster captain and a coach at grassroots level to get a sense of the impact Lancaster made and the problems Leinster now face.

But the reason there’s a problem is because something good is ending. That Lancaster legacy is an impressive one.

Martin Bayfield, ex-England and British and Irish Lions: “Here was a guy who was vilified over here after the 2015 World Cup. Maybe some of this are thinking now, ‘did we give him too hard a time back then?’ Because he goes to Leinster and proves to be an inspired appointment.”

Chris Pim, former Leinster captain: “Let’s be blunt, Lancaster got a bit of a raw deal with England. He was messed around there, the whole thing handled incredibly badly. But take away that World Cup. He finished second in four successive Six Nations campaigns. Ireland played his England team five times and lost four. Lancaster’s intelligence and astuteness shone through.”

stuart-lancaster-dejected-after-the-game It ended sourly for Lancaster with England. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Leo Cullen, Leinster head coach: “I was always fascinated by the caretaker pathway that Stuart initially went through (at England) because it was so similar to my own journey. I’d followed his career from afar. In 2016, he had a lot more experience than I had. I had a huge amount of respect for what he had achieved. We were light on experience as a coaching team. I was one year out of the game as a player when I was appointed head coach. You are trying to figure out lots of things.”

Mick Dawson, outgoing Leinster chief executive: “Back in 2016, we knew, and Leo knew we needed someone in that space. Leo said to me, ‘what do you think of Stuart Lancaster?’ And I said, ‘how come I didn’t think of that earlier?’

“Long story short, Leo rang him on a Thursday, the three of us sat in my office on a Sunday. I said to the two of them, ‘guys, if you can work out a plan how you can work together, come back to me in the afternoon’. They called me about two o’clock that day. ‘Yes,’ they both said. ‘This can work’.”

Leo Cullen: “You get a connection, you establish a rapport. It has been a great relationship. Sometimes you design roles around the personnel you have.”

Chris Pim: “As a former captain of the province, as a fan, when Stuart came in initially, I was thinking ‘brilliant appointment, lads. Well done for getting him’.”

Mick Dawson: “The reason it has worked really well comes down to the fact both men are relatively devoid of ego. Both were able to take roles that suited their skill set. You are dealing with two mature adults who said, ‘listen, we can do this’. Stuart has been good for us; we have been good for Stuart.”

stuart-lancaster-and-leo-cullen-celebrate-after-winning-the-guinness-pro14-final Cullen and Lancaster were a superb duo. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sean Skehan, head coach Terenure College RFC: “From a coach’s perspective, watching on, Stuart’s influence is on par with Joe’s (Schmidt). Joe came in and became the guy who was the IP for rugby in Ireland who initiated ideas and the rest of the game, both at professional level and domestically, used those.

“So, when Stuart came in, I thought what an incredible appointment. He had a contrasting philosophy to Joe. Stuart said, yes we need frameworks, we need patterns of play, but we need a more heads up approach to the game. Let’s move from command control, where the coach comes up with a plan and the players execute it, to a place where we empower the players to make decisions.

“Stuart’s brand is one of the most attractive rugby to watch on planet earth. Now look at the current Irish attack – that is the Stuart Lancaster attack. A lot of the players with Ireland are the same with Leinster and you can see the Irish players have taken the Stuart Lancaster attack and put their own ideas on it.

“That fast, dynamic, move-the-point-of-attack-phase-play was constructed to basically destroy 13-2 defences – where you had 13 players in the front line, two in the backfield.

“Most professional teams run a system like that. As time went on defences got on top in the game and then Stuart created an attacking framework that made it extremely difficult for defences to close off all the spaces. That multi-faceted phase play, the dynamic game that Stuart has incorporated, that suits the Irish profile. Mike Catt and Andy Farrell are also very good coaches and they have a very similar philosophy to Stuart’s but have clearly added their own ideas to it.

“But the Lancaster Leinster legacy is this. Pretty much every time Ireland or Leinster attack now, they have three or four options. Players have been empowered by (Lancaster, Farrell and Catt) to make tackle-line decisions. So, they arrive at the tackle line and they have the choice to tip it, to take the collision, to sweep it, there are always options.

“Lancaster has been the driving force there for the last six years. Obviously Leo has been as well but Stuart’s departure leaves a massive hole because he was the man on the pitch. He had a huge responsibility for how they played and seemed to do a huge amount with the players on a one to one basis.

“The other thing is Stuart has been unbelievably good at is giving time to the domestic game. At the start of every year, Leinster invite the AIL and schools coaches into their HQ where Stuart gives a presentation on the way to play the game.

“On top of that, whenever you arrange to meet him, he’ll give you three hours of his time. He has been unbelievable for Irish rugby.”

PART TWO: THE PROBLEMS

Chris Pim: “The thing that killed Leinster in the 2019 Champions Cup final against Saracens, and also the 2020 quarter-final against Saracens, the 2021 semi-final, and 2022 final against La Rochelle, was a lack of killer, physical presence. We needed that big second row, the Nathan Hynes, Brad Thorn type we had in the past. We could have possibly won three more Heineken Cups if we had invested there. 

“So why didn’t we? Did we not learn from previous defeats?

“There is a pair of them in decisions. They don’t do anything without the other one agreeing to it. You have to credit them (Cullen and Lancaster) for winning as much as they did but you have to say they are both culpable – even if that is a bit too strong a word – for not addressing the second-row deficiency. We need to invest in that type of player.”

will-skelton-is-tackled-by-robbie-henshaw Leinster could not cope with Will Skelton. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Martin Bayfield: “If you were looking at the salary caps now, and you were deciding, do I spend it on a top player or a top coach, I’d go for the coach every time. Look at what Steve Borthwick did for Leicester and you think, put Steve Borthwick in charge of Bath and they will sort Bath out. Coaching is so important now. There are a few obvious top-class players but you don’t look at too many squads and think, that is a terrible group of players. A good coach with a good system will sort out a team. That is where I would spend my money.”

Sean Skehan: “When you hit on a Joe Schmidt, when you hit on a Stuart, you are hitting on a Jurgen Klopp and a Pep Guardiola, the best coach in world rugby. I’d still have Joe in that bracket. The likelihood of finding another Michael Cheika, another Joe, another Stuart, is tough to see.

“The next appointment is crucial for Irish rugby because the funny thing is you have more of a chance of setting your mark in the lab at a provincial set-up rather than with the more high-profile international team because of the amount of time a coach gets with the province. Strategy is often aligned to the dominant team. That is the case with Crusaders and New Zealand. That is currently the case with Leinster and Ireland.

“So can they get someone whose philosophy is a continuation of Stuart’s ideas? Can they hit on a brilliant appointment? You don’t have Mick Dawson there who aced a lot of their previous appointments. Do they go internal and promote up or do they go external again and scour the planet?”

Chris Pim: “Leinster have always stayed away from the tried and trusted. Joe’s appointment was from left-field and was an absolute masterstroke. There was clearly more in him than a mere assistant. I would be surprised if they picked out a big headline name but the fact that Mick Dawson is gone from there now means they possibly will.”

Mick Dawson: “Let me be clear on one thing, Joe and Michael’s appointments were not all down to me. We have a professional game board in Leinster and they delegated me and one or two others to research the market. Also in the case of Leo, Michael and Joe, the IRFU had an input. So, there were a lot of people who worked together to find Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt, and appoint them.

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“Appointing coaches is always tricky. You need to work with the players. You don’t necessarily ask them who they want but you ask them what do they want? After Michael left, the players made it clear they wanted a dynamic, young coach. Joe came along and fitted that bill.

“We have a good feel for what is required. Guy Easterby does a great job liaising with the players. Plus we have time on our side to find a replacement. But like everything in life. You need a bit of luck.”

Martin Bayfield: “There will be someone lurking somewhere waiting for their moment, their chance. When Stuart Lancaster arrived, the Leinster players must have been thinking, ‘what have we got here? This guy has only signed a one year contract’. Look at the results since, four Pro14 titles, a Champions Cup, two Champions Cup finals, two Champions Cup semis.

“He was incredible. But now you have to replace him. That is the nature of a team sport. When you leave you think, ‘they will never replace me but teams always do, they always find someone. Leinster may not enjoy the success they have had for a while but they will come again. They are too good, too powerful, not to.”

Sean Skehan: “It is going to be difficult because the current set-up has someone integrally involved in it who has delivered non-stop results and has a team playing a style of rugby that is revered across the world. The other side of the coin is another Matt O’Connor type appointment – and no offence is meant to Matt O’Connor – but it could be a significant regression if the wrong choice was made.”

Eddie O’Sullivan, former Ireland coach: “It might be worth waiting until after the World Cup. The question really isn’t who do you get but what type of coach should you go for. Leinster have a superb system. You pick someone that suits your system.”

Mick Dawson: “The most important thing going forward is to secure Leo Cullen. Leo will have the major influence on who comes in to fill that role.”

PART 3: THE SEARCH PARTY

Leinster appointed Michael Cheika at a time when no one in the world bar Michael Cheika’s mother had a clue who he was. He started the modern era for them. Then, when he left, they found an even better coach in Schmidt. The Lancaster/Cullen pairing was just as inspired. But what now? What should they do?

Eddie O’Sullivan: “The obvious names aren’t always the best coaches. What I mean by that is that it’s easy to look good when you are surrounded by good players but to me, the best coach is the one who improves set-ups, systems and players. Rob Baxter is someone I’ve huge respect for, the progress he’s made with Exeter, turning them into European champions from such a low starting point.

“Irish wise, Jeremy Davidson has stayed in the fight, despite having financial restraints everywhere. The job he did with in ProD2 was incredible. He’s still punching above his weight with Brive. I rate him highly.”

jeremy-davidson Davidson has done a fine job with Brive. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

Martin Bayfield: “We all know Steve Borthwick and I think he’d make an incredible England coach but the backs coach at Northampton, Sam Vesty, is doing remarkable things with the Saints backline. He is someone who I think would be a tremendous coach in an international set-up. He gets the best out of people. Dan Biggar gave him the greatest endorsement. He said, ‘if I had met Sam Vesty earlier in my career, I’d be a better player’.”

Sean Skehan: “Andrew Goodman was a really good appointment to come back to Leinster. He got a lot of exposure in the Crusaders and they are global, real thinkers. Tony Brown would be a really good one. He has a capacity to be able to change. He is very pragmatic. Wherever he goes, he has a different way of thinking. He has unbelievable strike stuff off lineout and scrum and is a really interesting guy if they get him.

“Noel McNamara (former Ireland U20s coach, now attack coach at the Sharks) has been non-stop success. The other one is Ronan O’Gara who has shown in one-off games he can tactically outsmart the best. But he is at the start of a cycle in France. So, will it be a guy we don’t know? Will Felipe be considered to come back from Argentina? Knowing Leinster’s MO, I think they will look south for who they will get. I think it will be a continuation of the type of playing style that Leinster have operated on.”

Chris Pim: “One name stands out: Shaun Edwards. He has had a massive impact wherever he has gone. He has done an amazing job in France, was incredibly popular with Wales, has done it in club rugby with Wasps and fits the bill of having Lancaster’s status but has also been happy working under someone. If that means waiting until after the World Cup before he starts, then you wait, given how good he is.”

Mick Dawson: “We have nine months to find someone. Time is on our side. That’s a good thing.”

Leo Cullen: “We are three rounds into a season. We are focused on the here and now. Us, the coaches, the players, we are itching for more. We’re hungry to do well now.”

Mick Dawson: “Be clear on one thing, the history of Leinster Rugby will treat Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster very well.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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