LEO CULLEN AND Stuart Lancaster came across as a happy coaching couple in UCD yesterday, but one has to wonder what the appointment of a ‘Senior Coach’ really means for Leinster’s existing head coach.
There was a fresh reiteration yesterday that it was Cullen who initiated this appointment, as was also repeatedly stated with regard to Graham Henry’s two-week stint as a consultant during the summer.
Lancaster and Cullen head to Leinster training yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Taken purely on face value and going along with that insistence, these are encouraging moves from Cullen, recognising his own lack of experience and seeking out ways to learn even quicker on the job.
However, it is clear that the powers that be in Leinster and the IRFU haven’t been totally content with the province’s coaching set-up in recent times.
As recently as June, IRFU performance director David Nucifora revealed his desire to see Leinster add more experience to their coaching team, pointing out that Munster, Ulster and Connacht had that element in place.
“If Leo requires any assistance over time he knows he’s only got to ask and we’ll be there to help and give him that assistance,” said Nucifora.
“Does he need help along the way? Possibly, but that’s up to Leinster and Leo to ask for that if they think that’s required.”
So it has transpired that Leinster have brought in Henry and now Lancaster, both of whom have considerably more experience than Cullen, Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty.
Whatever the definitive truth about the nature of this latest appointment, or rather who it was initiated by, it has to be seen as a positive for Leinster.
There appears to be some pleasure taken in deriding Lancaster based on last year’s World Cup capitulation with England. It was a hugely disappointing campaign, of course, but England played some excellent rugby under his stewardship in the previous seasons.
Lancaster watches Leinster’s session in the sun. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
A stunning 38-21 victory over New Zealand in Twickenham in 2012 stands out as one major highlight.
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“Ultimately, I was proud to have played a part in their development,” said Lancaster yesterday when asked what it felt like to watch England win a Grand Slam at the first time of asking under Eddie Jones.
“The disappointment of the World Cup will still be in us – all of us as coaches and players – and I don’t think that will go away.
“You get fantastic moments as a coach, and there’s nothing better than giving a player his first cap and shaking his hand and saying, ‘Well done, you’re representing your country for the first time.’
“I think I did that probably 25 times if not more, such was the youth of the English team at that time. And to see those players grow into the senior players I knew they would become and drive the team under Eddie’s guidance, and Steve [Borthwick] and Paul [Gustard] have done a brilliant job as well. I’m delighted for them.
“And I’m sure they’ll go on to be successful, I always felt that they would. I always felt the period England would be successful was between 2015 and 2019.”
46-year-old Lancaster has a deep-seated belief that squad culture underpins everything that happens on the rugby pitch – one baton with which his critics have beaten him – and only months after Johnny Sexton questioned Leinster’s own culture, he seems a good fit.
While he is not well-known as a defensive specialist, Lancaster defended his qualifications for taking on that aspect of his new job yesterday.
Lancaster insisted that accepting the offer of this Leinster role is not about proving himself, but after nine months out of a full-time coaching position, it is certainly a chance to rebuild his dented reputation.
Lancaster speaks with Zane Kirchner in UCD. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I’ve never felt, even when I was England coach, it was never about proving myself; you just want to help the team get better and achieve its potential.
“When I looked at the number of quality players in this [Leinster] environment, not just the senior internationals but the academy players; this club has unbelievable potential.”
Lancaster stated that he has hopes of working with that academy system at Leinster, as well as the senior team’s attack, and it was a little odd to hear the Englishman speaking about the future so soon after his arrival.
Having signed on only until the end of this season, it’s unclear what Lancaster’s longer-term ambitions are.
He denied having had any thoughts about the possibility of the Ireland job opening up in the event that Joe Schmidt departed next summer, and insisted that he has no desire to be a head coach right now.
Lancaster stressed that he will be working under Cullen at Leinster.
“Further down the line, opportunities might come up,” said Lancaster in relation to any future ambition of being a head coach again. “It is not something I crave at the moment.
“I’ve got an opportunity to influence the group and pass on what I’ve learned in a coaching capacity.
“When I was trying to develop the [England] team and bring it on from 2011 and 2012, grow a young team, there are so many pieces to the jigsaw that it will be nice, to be honest, to go back to doing what I really set out as a coach in the first instance – and that’s just hands-on coaching.
Lancaster and scrum coach John Fogarty. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“Leo knows this club far, far better than me. I’ve still yet to meet the players properly individually, I don’t know them all and I don’t understand club and the culture, so I’m 100% happy with the role I’ve got.
“As for what the future holds, we’ll see, but I’m not thinking about that too much for the time being.”
Cullen certainly didn’t come across as a man who feels threatened by Lancaster’s arrival, but there is now some danger that any success for Leinster will see the ‘senior coach’ credited.
Cullen was appointed on a two-year deal in 2015, meaning his contract is set to expire at the end of the current season. Having learned a harsh lesson by being poorly prepared to replace Matt O’Connor, Leinster are surely already planning for next summer.
The arrival of Lancaster for the remainder of the season only muddies the issue of Cullen’s future with the province.
The ideal for Leinster is that Cullen and Lancaster work superbly in tandem and the younger coach learns huge amounts from the Englishman, thereby leaving him in a stronger position to control things as head coach on any renewed deal.
Certainly, it is a positive for Irish coaches to be in the professional system and to see them receive a degree of backing from the IRFU and the provinces, even if certain circumstances have been managed poorly.
For his part, Cullen must be wondering exactly what the future holds for him as Lancaster looks to ensure that an impact at Leinster helps him to renew his reputation.
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Lancaster aims to help Leinster become a ‘dominant force in Europe again’Leinster add ex-England boss Stuart Lancaster to coaching staff