Leinster marched on to the European Challenge Cup semifinals with a comfortable victory over Wasps at the weekend. It was another step in the remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the team’s senior coach, writes Lee Calvert.
A lot can happen in eighteen months. It was roughly that long ago that Stuart Lancaster was in the Twickenham stands, watching the home team, England, become the first team to leave their own Rugby World Cup at the group stage. As a proud Englishman, he would have been devastated. And that’s before you add in the fact that he was the coach.
In the year and a half since then, Britain has decided to leave the European Union, pretty much every actor or musician on the planet over the age of fifty has died and Eddie Jones has won two championships and one Grand Slam with the same England squad that Stuart failed so miserably with in November 2015.
Failures like the one Lancaster helmed can be hard if not impossible to recover from. Just ask Gareth Jenkins, who threw his coaching towel in almost immediately after his sacking from the Wales job after the embarrassing loss to Fiji that saw them crash out of the 2007 World Cup. He appeared simply too sad to continue.
Stuart Lancaster had that same look in the aftermath of the last Rugby World Cup, with the blame placed squarely on him and criticism in particular thrown at the decision to select Sam Burgess – at best a premature move and at worst the most heinous decision in rugby since every decision Ma’a Nonu makes at the hairdresser. It would have been easy for him to take the no doubt sizeable payout he received from the RFU and concentrate on consulting or watching daytime TV and napping in the afternoon.
Instead, he set about rebuilding his career, putting himself in the limelight again and bracing himself for the endless questions, most of which appeared to be about Sam bloody Burgess. The problem was that not many people called until last September, when Leinster offered him a senior coach position until the end of the current season.
In many ways, Lancaster is the perfect candidate for this Leinster squad. His experience in the England, and before that the Leeds academies, means he a well placed to develop the considerable young talents at the Irish province’s training ground. The likes of Joey Carbery, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath and Adam Byrne have one of the leading developers of talent in the business on the training ground every day.
In the rush to judge Lancaster after his England sacking, many chose to forget everything he had done in the seven years previous. He shepherded the academy and Saxons squad until he was given the job in of redeeming an England senior squad who had been poor on the field and a set of arseholes off it at the 2011 World Cup.
It was Lancaster who transitioned that squad, handing out new caps and building the base for what Eddie Jones has achieved. The most honest criticism that you can legitimately throw at him is that his decision making at the very highest level is not of the required standard, something that Jones does not struggle with. However, unlike Lancaster, Jones took the job without having to start the squad from scratch. Most importantly, Stu was never a bad coach, if anything simply too diffident a character to be in the top job.
At Leinster, he is in his element – away from the press conferences and sponsorship obligations he has focused on bringing something extra to their game. Brian O’Driscoll, a man who knows a thing or two about Leinster, stated in commentary at the weekend that you could see Lancaster’s influence running through the side with newfound offloading confidence and the consummate performance of the young fullback Carbery.
The powers at Leinster have certainly noticed and have sensibly decided this week to lock him in for another two years. It is just reward for his talents and his return.