A little under three years ago, Stuart Lancaster was an unemployed rugby coach with the ugly feat of overseeing England’s worst-ever World Cup performance the most recent accomplishment on his CV.
A little under three years ago, Leinster’s stars had ended their Champions Cup campaign with six points, scoring five tries and conceding 17 in a miserable pool stage, before being filleted by Connacht in the Pro12 final.
Leo Cullen, their coach, sought innovation and invigoration. Lancaster sought something similar. It began with a chance phone call and has culminated in a glut of trophies.
Lancaster became “senior coach” at the province. His first game in the set-up was a Pro12 curtain-raiser at Scotstoun, a riveting contest owned by Tommy Seymour, who scored four tries in Glasgow’s 33-25 victory.
“I saw enough in that week to think, this has been the right move,” Lancaster said. “I knew they were a great group of players, I was impressed with their attitude from the first minute and from a family point of view, it worked, I could commute from Leeds to Dublin relatively easily. One year became two and then three years and now I’ve signed for another two.”
Lancaster’s influence has been significant. In the last two seasons, Leinster have been in four finals and won three of them. A Champions Cup and Pro14 double in 2018; runners-up in Europe and champions again in the league in 2019. His first match came in Glasgow and so too has his most recent, Saturday’s thunderous victory over the Warriors before a raucous and belligerent Celtic Park.
At Leinster, he is surrounded by rugby galacticos, but he has loved their willingness to improve and the absence of ego.
“One thing I’ve found about the players over in Ireland is that they’re very hungry to learn and get better and they’re open-minded,” he said.
“One of the values we want in the club is humility and part of being humble is that you can learn from other people. I was lucky in that I had 50-odd games of experience as an England coach, you learn a lot by playing against the best teams in the world, and that combined with their open-mindedness helps the team grow, I think.
“We played 57 players [this season] and scored 95 tries. The 95 tries weren’t just scored with the best team, the team full of Ireland internationals. The 95 tries were scored with a spread of 57 players.
“It’s not the fact we have to give them game time, they earn it, and one of the key things we do really well is give them opportunities in training to develop so when they come to games, they’re ready. That’s the secret, really.”
Neither played at Celtic Park, O’Brien injured and McGrath not selected. But O’Brien, a colossus of Irish rugby for an age, was summoned to the podium to the lift the trophy together with captain Jonny Sexton.
“I never got the chance to really coach him, he was at his best with the Lions and in my time with Leinster he’s been injured a lot,” Lancaster said.
“You’d just love to have coached him more. Jamie Heaslip is similar. But I’ve been so impressed with his personality, his integrity, his leadership, his desire to want to improve and he raises the standards of everyone around him.
“People talk about, what’s his point of difference? His point of difference is how he makes everyone else feel in the squad. It’s testament to his influence that he was given the trophy to raise because I don’t think anyone doubts his influence over the last 10-15 years.
“We’ll miss Sean and Jack, but you’ve got the likes of Ed Byrne who came on today, back-row wise, Max Deegan, Dan Leavy will come back from injury, Caelan Doris is outstanding for us, Scott Penny, the under-20s open-side, I think he’s a little Sean O’Brien, he’s going to be a great player.
“The show rolls on with Leinster and that’s a great credit to the academy and the quality of players coming through the system.”
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