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Dublin: 0 °C Sunday 17 November, 2019
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Cullen and Lancaster's dynamic coaching relationship driving Leinster forward

The province are on the verge of creating a second dynasty as they prepare to face Racing 92 in Bilbao on Saturday.

THE PRESENCE OF many of the English rugby corps at Leinster’s UCD headquarters was an unexpected surprise for Stuart Lancaster yesterday, no doubt evoking painful memories of Bagshot and everything associated with that difficult time in his career.

Stuart Lancaster Lancaster is enjoying life with Leinster ahead of Saturday's Champions Cup final. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Just as Rob Andrews’ explosive, and unforeseen, memoir did last October, this had the potential to tear open a healing wound as Lancaster continues to rebuild his reputation after the battering it took in the wake of England’s World Cup fiasco.

The weight of that ill-famed failure is likely to linger wherever Lancaster goes until he achieves tangible success, but the 48-year-old is rehabilitating his reputation and career with Leinster, his international standing soaring again after two impressive seasons in Ireland.

He 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’ everyday.

In the two years since, 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.

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.

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 to Saturday’s Champions Cup final.

“I think our styles are very similar, and very similar in terms of personality,” Lancaster said. “I don’t think either of us need to, or want to, be front and centre all the time so Leo is happy for me to lead on stuff, and I’m happy for Leo to lead on stuff.

“Leo has got very high integrity and very good leadership qualities. I think you saw that as a player, you would have seen that a lot more so than me. I think he’s got great integrity, he’s got unbelievable work ethic and he’s very good on the managerial side of things. So the planning on the day-to-day, week-to-week basis and he’s very honest with the players.

Stuart Lancaster Lancaster speaking to the media in UCD yesterday. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I think that skillset allows me to focus on the coaching side of things, and don’t think it’s just me and Leo. Girvan Dempsey does a brilliant job, John Fogarty does a brilliant job, the analysts do a brilliant job. We often try and narrow it down to one person and one thing but it’s never like that in a team, and it’s certainly not like that in Leinster.

“You think of the work the medical team and the physios have done to get players fit for the this week — we’ve got very few injuries going into a Champions Cup final at the end of the season which is remarkable.”

Lancaster was then asked if he felt he has come out of the experience a stronger and better coach. Fail in order to succeed and all that.

“The perception is that I lost a lot of games in charge of England but actually we won a lot as well,” he replied.

“We won some big ones, the All Blacks etc etc. I don’t think there is any coach that has gone unbeaten and I don’t think you have to go through that necessarily.

“But it certainly makes you more determined when you have been through it and come out the other side. And not just do it for yourself, to be honest, you want to do it for Leinster first and foremost, the players and the supporters.

“But from a personal point of view you want to do it for your family, because they’re the ones who have supported you through all the tough times. My wife and kids and family and friends, that’s the motivation for me.

“We obviously took our pain last year in the semi-final [against Clermont] and you never want to go through that, but perhaps it’s just part of the process. I wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone because it’s certainly been a lot more enjoyable winning games this season than losing.”

Leinster players have regularly spoken about the acute disappointment of last year when their promising season fell apart with two semi-final defeats, and have used those lessons to fuel an unrelenting pursuit of a fourth European star this season.

Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Dan Leavy Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Dan Leavy during squad training yesterday. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The eastern province produced two breathtaking performances to dispatch Saracens and Scarlets at the quarter and semi-final stage respectively, having emerged from the pool stage unbeaten.

Cullen’s side have built up a considerable, and formidable, head of steam this term and go into Saturday’s final against Racing 92 as many people’s favourites to end a six-year trophy drought.

“We have played a lot of big games since Clermont last year,” Lancaster continued. “I wouldn’t just leave it at Montpellier, who we’ve played twice and beaten twice. We played Exeter home and away, beaten them; beaten Glasgow home and away; beaten Scarlets and beaten Saracens.

“We’ve had a good run, but it’s irrelevant, what happens in the past. It’s what happens on the day, and certainly a fast start and a good start against a side of the quality of Racing will be key, there’s no doubt.

“Particularly when you look at what they did against Munster: it was three tries before they knew it and you’re always chasing the game, then.

“The pain of last year, the lessons we learned about having more adaptability in our game and having more styles to play different opposition is important. So, we have definitely improved in that regard. But all that is irrelevant come Saturday because every game starts from zero.”

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Ryan Bailey

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