Ordinarily in a divorce, the first people you think of are the kids. But in 2015 everyone kind of knew things would work out for Owen Farrell under his new guardianship. Eddie Jones’ England, after all, needed him as much as he needed them and sure enough, he’d graduate to become star, then captain, of Jones’ side.
As for dad Andy, and kindly uncles Stuart, Mike and Graham, well, that was a different story. Rugby coaches are like knitwear. They go in and out of fashion. And after the 2015 World Cup, backs coach, Andy Farrell, head coach, Stuart Lancaster, skills coach, Mike Catt, and forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, were returning to the warehouse.
A noisy little Australian made it his business to tell the RFU he’d be bringing in his own backroom staff. That left Farrell, Catt and Rowntree looking for work.
Lancaster, meanwhile, went searching for himself. A year out after that disastrous World Cup was what he needed. He’d spend months travelling the rugby universe, looking at different training methods in France, New Zealand and Australia. Little was he to know – or Farrell, Catt and Rowntree for that matter – but eventually the answer to all their problems would lie much closer to home, across the Irish Sea.
This weekend two of those discarded coaches return to Twickenham. It’s Jones’ England versus Andy Farrell and Mike Catt’s Ireland. The Australian ripped up Lancaster’s programme and started over but is currently going through the kind of pain they all suffered seven years ago. After indifferent performances in this year’s championship, Ireland is the last thing he needs right now. For Farrell, Catt, Lancaster and Rowntree, though, Ireland has become their refuge.
Farrell was the first to arrive there, landing in Munster on a consultancy basis at a time when the late Anthony Foley was going through a crisis of his own during a troubled 2015/16 campaign. The players instantly took to the Lancastrian, responding to the energy he brought, the clarity of his points. “A great gift Andy has is the ability to read a dressing room,” said Warren Gatland, who brought Farrell as his defence coach for the 2013 and 2017 Lions tours. “Players respond to him.”
So did David Nucifora. Outside of Ireland, not too many people know much about the Australian but inside the IRFU’s offices, he is the puppet-master, the one who scans the market to find the best coaches to hire.
It didn’t matter to either Nucifora, or then Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, that Farrell had spent the days after England’s World Cup defeats to Wales and Australia denying accusations that he had an undue influence over Lancaster in selection matters. “Stuart always had the casting vote,” Farrell protested. “It’s Stuart’s gig and we back him to the hilt. We all work under his umbrella – and that umbrella is a brilliant place to work. We’re all mourning together.”
Soon they’d find solace. Schmidt’s Ireland were also coming to terms with a cabinet reshuffle, Les Kiss moving to Ulster, Schmidt and Nucifora in a rush to find a suitable replacement for the departing defence coach. And here, right under their noses, was the leading specialist in the trade.
Sitting at the back of the media room, as Farrell addressed his audience, was Nucifora – the man who knew Schmidt wouldn’t be extending his contract beyond the 2019 World Cup and knew England were interested in getting Farrell back
“Andy is world class,” Schmidt would later say of his successor. Still, it took a while for Irish people to see that as results in Farrell’s first season on the Schmidt ticket were mixed, wins over South Africa and New Zealand spoiled by losses to Scotland and Wales.
It was only after the Lions shut the All Blacks out in 2017, and after Ireland won a grand slam a year later, that the naysayers found a quiet corner to grumble alone over their pints. Then, on the 2018 summer tour to Australia, something else happened. Ireland lost the opening test of a three-match tour. Enter Farrell. “Tiredness isn’t an excuse,” he said to a large touring press corps. “I want to see what the old Irish ticker is made of.”
Sitting at the back of the media room that day, as Farrell addressed his audience, was Nucifora – the man who knew Schmidt wouldn’t be extending his contract beyond the 2019 World Cup and who also knew England were interested in getting Farrell back.
Hardly any of us had even noticed Nucifora take a seat at the back of that room, but that was not the only thing we were unaware of. That afternoon, that tour, essentially, was Farrell’s job interview. He was about to earn a promotion.
By now, Lancaster had journeyed long and far along redemption’s road. Just as Kiss’s departure had opened a door for Farrell, another one was ajar at Leinster, after Kurt McQuilkin announced he had to return to New Zealand for family reasons.
It was Lancaster they turned to. If 2015 had been a hard year for him, then he wasn’t on his own. Leo Cullen was in his rookie season as a head coach and after five defeats in six European games, many wondered whether Leinster would ever be a force again, while the crueler analysts wondered if it was time the Cullen experiment was aborted.
He stuck at it though and the club stood by him, excusing the failed Champions Cup campaign on the back of its timing, coming weeks after Ireland’s World Cup adventure had ended, forgiving that season’s Pro12 final defeat for what it was: Leinster being fall-guys in a Connacht fairy-tale.
When defence coach McQuilkin moved on, and Lancaster got approached, everyone wondered how this odd arrangement would work? Cullen remained as head coach, Lancaster appointed senior coach. At the time, it was almost comical, these fancy job titles, with echoes of the Life of Brian sketch where half the Monty Python crew acted out their roles as the People’s Front of Judea while sneering at the rival grouping, the Judean People’s Front.
Yet to Cullen and Lancaster’s enormous credit, they made the marriage work, one complementing the other, Bilbao the unlikely honeymoon destination as Leinster won the European Cup for a fourth time in the Basque city.
Those who have studied the personalities of coaches and managers from various sports, have a clearer comprehension, though. For Cullen and Lancaster stood then in a similar spot to the ground Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough and Peter Taylor shared in 1980.
Yet this was where things could have got complicated, because in the aftermath of that victory over Racing 92, a lopsided amount of praise was heaped on to Lancaster’s shoulders, whereas Cullen, the sole recipient of all the grief two years earlier, simply had to accept the fact that this time an Englishman’s comeback was the only story people wanted to tell. “No,” he said, stretching the word out to make it last a few seconds, when asked if the attention that Lancaster received was a source of annoyance. “Why would you even ask that question? I honestly don’t even understand it.”
Those who have studied the personalities of coaches and managers from various sports, have a clearer comprehension, though. For Cullen and Lancaster stood then in a similar spot to the ground Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough and Peter Taylor shared in 1980. That latter partnership didn’t last. But Cullen and Lancaster’s relationship has. “You get the chemistry from meeting people straight away,” Cullen said on that 2018 afternoon. “So with Stuart, it was a good relationship from day one. With Kurt leaving, we were having a tough time, a lot of uncertainty, and Stuart had come off a difficult period as well. It made sense to me.
“Then there is fact that I can see the commitment Stuart gives. All that I have is respect for the guy and whatever praise he gets, he deserves it.”
That the relationship has worked so well – four URC titles complementing the 2018 Champions Cup win – stems from the ease both men have had parking their egos. It was a big step for Cullen to pick up the phone to ask Lancaster for help, an even bigger one for Lancaster to say yes. He wouldn’t have done so if he hadn’t been handed sufficient responsibility. Rather than being a joke, the Englishman’s job title, of senior coach, was smart. There’s no way a former England head coach could be a defence coach for an Irish province.
In the years since, Lancaster’s work at Leinster has been variously described as “visionary”, “groundbreaking” and “amazing,” according to some of those who have been on the training ground. “What Leo has been brilliant at doing is accentuating Stuart’s strengths, which are coaching and doing all the rugby-related stuff, defence and attack, picking his brain and allowing him to really exercise what he does best,” Kevin McLaughlin, a former Leinster player, also said.
Seven years on from that harrowing World Cup, the period of ‘mourning’ has ended. You don’t see those former England coaches covered in sackcloth and ashes. These days Farrell, Catt, Lancaster and Rowntree can be seen wearing the tracksuits of relatively successful teams.
If Catt and Rowntree’s climbs back have been less arduous, well that is because they never really reached the same kind of heights. Lancaster was head coach in 2015 after all, Farrell lauded firstly as a defensive guru, then considered so influential that some even accused him of being overbearing.
That sort of thing was never said of his time as Schmidt’s assistant. He hid from the limelight and was immensely popular with the players who needed a counter balance to the obsessive New Zealander. Oh and one other thing, he was good at his job.
The greatest ever year in Irish rugby history came in 2018, when Ireland unleashed a defensive system that the rest of the rugby world took 12 months to figure out. Game after game, Farrell persuaded Ireland’s players to get off the defensive line quickly and in high numbers. Time after time, opposing teams creaked under the pressure, as Ireland won a grand slam for just the third time in their history, a Test against New Zealand for just the second time and a first series win in Australia since 1979.
In this context, and given all he’d done in the game, it made perfect sense for him to step up after Schmidt stepped out.
Redemption stories are rarely straightforward, though. Throughout Farrell’s first year in charge, the new Ireland resembled a poorer version of the old Ireland, remaining ruck obsessed without ever being anywhere near as efficient as they had been under Schmidt.
As results and performances deteriorated, attention turned to Catt in a way it never really had done when he was on the Lancaster England ticket.
Naff jokes about the possibility of a Catt becoming a sacrificial lamb stopped being told. Two years after Schmidt had gone, a new Ireland really had arrived, one that had a couple of Englishmen at the helm
Former Ireland internationals, Tony Ward and Neil Francis, wrote critical pieces of the Englishman in their newspaper columns. At one stage, after a defeat to France had come on the back of one to Wales and a shocking display against Georgia, the question was asked: ‘Does the buck stop with Mike Catt?’
Stephen Ferris, the former Grand Slam winning flanker, provided the answer: “It probably does,” Ferris said. “To score two tries in the opening two (2021 Six Nations) games and one of those being a fortuitous bounce of the ball – it doesn’t fill Irish fans with hope.”
And yet the nadir was soon followed by a couple of peaks. Ireland would finish the 2021 championship in style, winning three games in a row, including a surprise victory over England. Better was still to come, though. November saw the All Blacks slayed in a manner which led to Ireland’s most notable sportswriter, David Walsh, write that it was the best Irish display he’d ever seen.
Everything had changed, the results, the performances, the personnel. Farrell had subtly reworked his pack, introducing more mobile ballplayers, Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Jack Conan and Caelan Doris to the starting XV; the previously undroppable Conor Murray found himself on the bench, Jamison Gibson-Park getting Ireland operating at a higher tempo. Suddenly all those mutterings from Farrell and Catt that a performance was coming could be believed.
Doubts disappeared. Naff jokes about the possibility of a Catt becoming a sacrificial lamb stopped being told. Two years after Schmidt had gone, a new Ireland really had arrived, one that had a couple of Englishmen at the helm.
Down in Limerick, meanwhile, Rowntree was operating under the radar as Munster’s forwards coach. The gig was going well; it has been Munster’s attack that has been heavily criticised not its pack.
Then came a couple of bombshells: the news that senior coach Stephen Larkham was leaving to become Brumbies head coach and head coach Johann van Graan was setting off to Bath. Seeking a replacement No1, Munster fans woke up one day to read Ronan O’Gara’s thoughts in his Irish Examiner column. “It won’t be me,” was the gist of the Munster legend’s thoughts.
Within a week Rowntree was practically writing a love letter for Munster the area and Munster the club, one their fans needed to read. He wants the head coach’s job and has been interviewed for it. As he waits on word for his dream job, Lancaster, Farrell and Catt continue a search of their own. The former really needs another Champions Cup to cement his Leinster legacy; the latter pair a big away win to compliment the brilliance of the home victories over England and New Zealand.
All have some distance still to go.
But look back to where their journey started in 2015.
They’ve come a long way.
Join RugbyPass+ now to continue reading this article.
Access our new premium content area bringing you the highest quality rugby content from award-winning journalists, opinionated pundits, leading coaches and the biggest stars in the game.