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The French connection

From Bod’s hat-trick to Sexton’s drop-goal, no opponent has defined this Irish rugby century quite like France

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'Stuart's vital but it's very unfair to elevate one over the other'

By Liam Heagney
Leinster's Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It’s been quite the seven-year marriage, ex-England boss Stuart Lancaster popping across the Irish Sea to pair up with Leo Cullen at Leinster and develop an enviable brand of rugby that appears to have taken on an even more potent level of consistency this season. This Anglo-Irish alliance has just four more months to run, though, as senior coach Lancaster handed in his notice last September after agreeing to take over at Racing 92.


No successor has been named for the Englishman and, as it stands, there is no concrete guarantee yet either that the director of rugby Cullen is staying on board. In recent times, he has opted for one-year rolling contracts.

However, with Leinster now under the baton of a new CEO in Shane Nolan and with Cullen’s Sandymout family home on the market since November, there is no confirmation that the three-time European Cup-winning skipper will take the club on minus Lancaster even though there is no reason why he isn’t more than capable of doing so.

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Whatever happens, Brian O’Driscoll wants to make sure his old teammate gets the deserved recognition for what has been achieved during his time in charge. Cullen’s first season as an emergency rookie boss after the sacking of Matt O’Connor may have been ropey but the province’s record since Lancaster signed up in September 2016 has been rather extravagant.

Five trophies – four leagues titles and a Heineken Champions Cup – have been won on the back of a total win percentage that is currently ticking along at 81.2 (152 wins in 187 matches) and their form this term has been sumptuous: 15 straight URC and Champions Cup wins and a tally of 76 tries scored, basically a five-pointer on average every 16 minutes they have played.

It’s a polished gallop that has now been rewarded by Andy Farrell naming 20 Leinster players in his 37-strong Ireland Six Nations squad. That’s a focus that will ramp up next week but in the meantime, there is the no small matter of Leinster hosting Racing this Saturday and getting the win that would leave them top of the Pool A round of 16 seedings and likely eliminate the Parisian outfit from the competition.


The regular word on the street has been that the Leinster machine has very much been a Lancaster build, but O’Driscoll doesn’t agree. “Stuart has been vital to the development of this group of players in conjunction with Leo and it is very unfair to elevate one over the other,” he told RugbyPass.

“Before Stuart arrived, I met Leo for a coffee in the Radisson and talked a few things through and he had the grandmaster plan as to what way he wanted to play the game This was at a time when Joe Schmidt was playing a very niche particular style, a new style around power plays and ability to break defences after three, four phases.

“Leo’s vision was what we are looking at now, an ability to play an all-court game and that was before Stuart came in so for everyone that thinks that Stuart has been the one that has been driving the narrative, the template and the foundations were definitely Leo’s concept and they have been harnessed through the coaching of Stuart and the development of all the players. It’s very much a joint effort.”

An effort so good that O’Driscoll, who celebrates his 44th birthday this Saturday, would love to play for if he could turn the clock back a decade and get his boots back on. “The good thing is I am far enough removed to not feel real envy for it but you look on thinking, ‘Wow, what a team that would be to be involved in’.


“The understanding of everyone, everyone getting their role, the competitiveness and quality right across the board, not in the 23 but 35 players, 40 players, academy guys coming in, Jamie Osborne, Jimmy O’Brien is still relatively new into the setup, Liam Turner, these young lads, (Brian) Deeny coming in, (Joe) McCarthy, the quality those players.

“You expect the quality of the internationals and the guys that have been there for five and six years but when you are getting immediate quality from academy players, then you really have an appreciation for how good this setup is. It would be lovely to be involved in an environment where everyone had total certainty as to what they are trying to achieve.

“That is the really impressive part of them [the young players], their ability to seamlessly transition into a position or multiple positions when personnel are taken away or through injury, through international games being on simultaneously. When you are looking at guys like Rhys Ruddock on the periphery, a great player, great person, great leader but yet can’t get into the 23 for European games, that speaks volumes for where this Leinster team is at.

“Their development of academy players and underage players coming through, they just seem to have an assembly line of quality year on year. The competitiveness then drives further competitiveness. These young players come through into an environment where they are seeing the best of professionals in senior leadership groups, they are seeing good culture. So that is the expectation and it just becomes a virtuous circle.

“So, yeah, they are in a very good place. They have got to make sure they don’t lose that, that they keep working on that year-on-year but it does feel that under Stuart and Leo that it has been a constant evolution over the last five, six years – but they need to win Europe this year, they really do to back up the quality that we have seen for quite a few years.”

Whereas the future looks blindingly bright for Leinster, Racing arrive in Dublin heavily weighed down by the slump that last month saw them hammered by Leinster and Paris rivals Stade, poor results accompanied by Finn Russell’s decision to join Bath before Lancaster arrives for the 2023/24 campaign. “This is the thing, it is very hard to keep a group of players,” reckoned O’Driscoll, assessing a French club that lost three finals in five years, the most recent in 2020.

“You think about the age profile, it’s seven years since they lost their first final and if you don’t have success in that time, we have seen it previously with Clermont – you can have a glut of great players coming through and be perennial under-achievers and bridesmaids, that can happen.

“Most teams tend, if they keep knocking on the door, to get one done but in some unfortunate situations like Clermont, like Racing at the moment, it doesn’t look as though this group of players now is going to achieve the ultimate of what they want to do. You have got players like (Virimi) Vakatawa that had to retire. You look at the age profile of some of their stalwarts starting to get into their late 20s, early 30s and all of a sudden some personnel are changing.

“They have got a new head coach coming in, who is a brilliant coach, who is going to have a big job to change things and reform what their culture is, what he is looking for, what he expects from individuals, what he wants to bring in from overseas.

“So it does feel like they are coming through into a transitional period and potentially this group of players might have missed the boat now. That is not to say Stuart doesn’t get them organised within a couple of seasons again, but it does feel like there are going to be seasoned campaigners for Racing that will never win Europe.”

O’Driscoll will be on TV punditry duty at Saturday’s pool game in Dublin. BT Sport have been on the ball since the post-pandemic return of fans to stadiums and the enthusiasm of the broadcaster’s Aviva Stadium offering to viewers at home should be entertaining.

“You want to feel the energy of the supporters, you want to be in close proximity to the players, you want to feel and see the hits and smell the environment, the blood, the sweat and the tears – you can’t get a sense of that from a studio,” explained O’Driscoll.

“Being at more grounds is lending towards us being very enthusiastic. Also, we are getting to the best of European games, the best club games around the world, so what is not to enjoy? I don’t think there is an extra effort at enthusiasm, I just feel as though we are in a fortunate position to be able to enjoy being close to some of the world’s best rugby players, so you have got to try and elevate that message as much as possibly can.

“You’re not going to keep everyone happy. You will see negative comments about certain individuals or about the format, but you are trying to hold onto the older group who would have been more conventional but we are also trying to get new fans. We are also trying to develop the game and come up with new ideas that are going to interest millennials and those younger people.

“You have to captivate them for two, three minutes and have pieces that are going to cut up well for social media. That is now just a huge part of peoples’ take-up on sport in general, not just rugby. You have got to think with a wider view as to who your audience is and that is something we are definitely more conscious of.

“We are preaching to the converted in the strongholds about trying to grow the game and we will do that by creating more opportunities for the lesser fan, to draw them in and show them what the game is all about.”

  • BT Sport is the home of the Heineken Champions Cup. Tune in Saturday, January 21, for Leinster vs Racing 92 at 3pm exclusively live on BT Sport 2


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