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'I've found the players keen on new ideas, not felt any push back'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

Stuart Lancaster is now very much an Englishman abroad. His routine in Ireland when working as senior coach at Leinster from 2016 always featured a midweek interlude, the former England head coach frequently nipping home to Leeds for his day off to catch up with his family.

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However, his Dublin commute is no more now that he has taken the reins this season at Racing. The family dynamic has changed with his two kids all grown up, and the attraction of moving lock, stock and barrel to Paris was irresistible for the 54-year-old enamoured by the opportunity to prove himself as a capable No1 after seven seasons working under Leo Cullen.

Lancaster has got off to an encouraging start, Racing leading the Top 14 heading into its short pause to accommodate two rounds of Champions Cup rugby, starting with Sunday’s visit of Harlequins to La Defense Arena and then a trip across to Belfast to take on Ulster six days later.

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His progress as the boss man will be viewed with intrigue in England. Nearly every time over the years a Gallagher Premiership vacancy cropped up while he was in Ireland, Lancaster’s name was always linked with the job but he was never tempted. Racing, though, was a very different proposition and in the end, he just couldn’t say no.

“It was right at the start of last season while I was still at Leinster that Racing approached me,” he explained over Zoom from Paris. “Laurent Travers moving up to the president’s role meant there was an opportunity for a head coach, which is rare in sport, that a team makes a decision that early and recruits for it. It gave me a decent amount of time to think about it.”

What were the factors that he most considered? “One was the challenge of the Top 14 and of coming to live in France, trying to adapt to and learn a foreign culture, and trying to become successful. Racing had success in the Top 14 back in 2016 and have been in three European Cup finals with no wins. They want to try and get that first star, and more Top 14 wins.

“I worked at Leinster for seven years and the chance to be No1; I was more than happy working under Leo, but the chance to do that. One of the overriding factors was that Racing said there was no plan B: ‘We want you to come’. So that was persuasive.

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“It was just about figuring out when was the right time to leave Leinster and take on this challenge. Family-wise, Sophie and Dan are now 21 and 22, and Nina could move across full-time with the dogs. Leaving Leinster was difficult, but I started here in July, post-Champions Cup final, short pre-season, three Top 14 games, then a break of six weeks for the World Cup. Round four was Montpellier and now, here we are, nine games in and into Harlequins on Sunday.”

Explain what you mean by Racing having no plan B? “It is definitely rare a team approaches a coach so far out. It is usually reactive if a coach has been sacked and they need to go and find someone. Wayne Bennett said to me, ‘Wherever you go next make sure they 100 per cent want you to come and you 100 per cent want to go’.

“While people had approached me about leaving Leinster in the past, I had never been 100 per cent certain I wanted to leave and a team has never come with such conviction to say, ‘We want you to come’.

“In 2016 I did some consultancy for Racing post-World Cup and that Six Nations period. Racing invited me in. Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers were both coaching at the time and they asked me to analyse them, how I would beat them, and what lessons I had learned from England.

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“They probably remembered that, plus the experience of the European Cup final 2018, Leinster-Racing, was probably a factor as well. I wouldn’t say I had a relationship with Racing but I had been here in 2016 and maybe they remembered that and maybe that was part of it.

“Laurent has been amazing considering he has been here as head coach and now he has had to adapt a president’s role, which is the equivalent of a CEO-cum-chairman-cum-DoR-cum everything really but he has always been unbelievably supportive so far to help me settle in.”

The hecticness of the last five months hasn’t been lost on Lancaster, who has revelled in the club rugby rivalries that exist across the French rugby landscape. “I’d a fair amount of experience of it through matches with Leinster in Europe. There were not many places I hadn’t been; Clermont was one last weekend I hadn’t been there before.

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“It’s high profile in the country with the TV and how the teams have very strong identities based on towns or history of the area; every game feels like a Leicester versus Northampton game.

“There is this rivalry that exists between the clubs. Every home game is difficult because all the teams want to beat Racing; every away game is difficult because you have the challenge of the travel, the crowd and the energy that creates, the subconscious pressure on referees etc – all the things I learned with Leinster. But it’s just 26 times, that’s the difference. Twenty-six league games, plus Europe. My first day of pre-season was July 2 and the final is June 29 next year, so it’s definitely a marathon.”

What he believes will help is the way he has shaken up how preparations are done at Racing. “I can create a working week similar to what I would be used to,” he said. “I made some changes to the working week and the way I would do things are different to how they were done previously.

“Clearly the language is a challenge as a head coach. I pride myself on the ability to communicate, whether that is one-to-one relationships, small groups, reviews or previews or a coaching session, half-times, communicating with the referee before the game, or speaking with the doctor in the game.

“These are all challenges that I wanted but are part of the equation. It is a big profile. There are a lot of big players in every team. When you look at the list of who is at Toulon or Stade Francais, there is depth in every squad. The increase in the cap compared to English or URC teams would give them that depth.

“I announce the team earlier in the week and it was announced later in the week last year. That is not to say I am right and last year was wrong. It is more trying to condense the day and make it more efficiently run so we can get through more work in less time. Racing is a very multicultural team anyway.

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“There are a lot of French players but we had 10 players in the World Cup, Georgians, Argentinians, English, Welsh, South Africans etc, so there is a diverse group and they are all used to working in their different ways. I have found the players keen on new ideas. I have not felt any push back and I think the French players recognise the improvement in Leinster and in Ireland and they are keen to understand the reasons for that.

“My experience isn’t just because of Leinster. It goes back to England. It goes back to academy systems and Leeds. I am trying to bring all the things I have learned and merge that with the DNA of Racing and find a path that gets the best out of all the players. I am not trying to turn a French team into an Irish team but pick the best of everything and put it into a path for the players to follow.”

That path he hopes will deliver a league and cup double next summer, not prioritising Europe ahead of the Top 14 or vice-versa. “I’ve actually asked the question to all the players and all the staff: ‘What’s more important?’ Because the Top 14 is huge here in France, but clearly I’d be doing both competitions a disservice if I said one was more important than the other.

“I have had the privilege of coaching a team which did the double in 2018. The sense of fulfilment the players and coaching staff got from that particular year is probably unparalleled in any experience in my career, so the goal is to win both. To try and win both.

“The mindset is to go out and win the next game that’s in front of you then hopefully that gets you somewhere close towards the end of the season. Last year we lost in a semi-final and then a final, but in 2018 we managed to do the double. I hope it’s more like 2018 than last year.”

It was Racing that Leinster defeated in that European final five years ago, part of the French club’s hat-trick of losses in the Champions Cup decider. “The pain of those defeats is etched in the minds of the players. People talk about Racing being the giants, this, that and the other, but the reality is we need to put a star on the shirt.

“Toulouse have got five, so there is plenty of motivation here. But equally, you see the images of Joe Rokocoko chipping over the top and winning the Top 14 (2015/16) and what it meant to the club in front of 110,000. That’s a driver as well. For me, try and win both.

“Everyone has got a big squad and everyone will try to rotate the squad. I have got to trust, manage and prepare the squad appropriately so that we have got the resources to try and achieve that. It’s unbelievably difficult to win one of those trophies, never mind two, but you have got to have the mindset to go and achieve it. The players are 100 per cent behind me in that vision.

“If you had said to me at the start that nine games in, before Europe, we were top of the league, I would 100 per cent have taken it. We had 10 players away at the World Cup… there is a new calling system, the attack is different, the defence system is different. I definitely would have taken it.

“The challenges are as I expected, particularly around the language barrier. The players are very patient; a lot of them speak pretty good English. But having people translate for me is probably more frustrating for me than it is for everyone else. You want to be able to learn French quicker…”

Why? “As I have found out many times with Leinster in the last seven years when you play in a club environment it’s the trophies at the end of the season. Leinster last season went not far off unbeaten, then lost in a semi-final and a final and didn’t win anything.

“You have to peak at the end so in my mind, I have got this goal of creating really deep cohesion by the time we get to post-Six Nations. In the meantime, I’m trying every day when I train to put combinations together so we are more cohesive on the field.”

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