When asked if he would consider becoming an international head coach again, Stuart Lancaster recalls the nine months of disorientation he suffered after parting from England at the end of 2015 following their ignominious World Cup campaign. “Becoming a Test head coach again is not necessarily an itch I want to scratch,” says the 50-year-old Cumbrian. “Does Jürgen Klopp need to leave Liverpool to fulfil his dream and coach an international team?”
Never mind that in his four years at the helm England salvaged their reputation and enjoyed more stability than at any time since winning the 2003 World Cup. Still, the 2015 campaign dented his reputation and he travelled the world to enhance his coaching knowledge before receiving a call from Leinster’s director of rugby, Leo Cullen, at the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
“I remain very grateful to Leinster for giving me that opportunity,” says Lancaster as he prepares for Saturday’s European Champions Cup quarter-final with Saracens behind closed doors in Dublin. “Until then I was doing bits and pieces without having a proper team and a purpose to get my teeth into,” he adds, before explaining why he is no hurry to leave, whatever offers may come.
“There is a strong pull for me to be involved in the club game because I love the day-to-day and week-to-week stuff and I am lucky to have the role of head coach at Leinster. I want to give something back to them for the chance they gave me and the way they have embraced me and my family. It would take a lot for me to change that and go in a completely different direction when you only play 10 games a year.”
Leinster won Saturday night’s Pro14 final against Ulster and so are unbeaten since they lost the Champions League final to Saracens in Newcastle last year. That amounts to 23 victories out of 23, with many of their Pro14 matches played during the World Cup and the Six Nations without 15 of their players. “We trust and rotate the squad,” says Lancaster. “It’s tough because we had a Pro14 semi-final and final, Saracens in a European Cup quarter-final with the semi-final the following week if we win. And then it is two league games in the new season followed by the European Cup final, if we make it.
“It is something we talked about from the start of the lockdown, the mentality of peaking after a long break. We know what is coming. We have to be ready for it. I do not know if anyone has gone through a season winning every game, but we cannot afford to look that far ahead.”
Saracens and Leinster have dominated the Champions Cup since the 2015 World Cup, winning all four finals between them. The Premiership club have hoisted the trophy three times but will not be involved in the tournament for at least two seasons after being relegated to the Championship for breaching the salary cap.
“We will not be underestimating them,” says Lancaster. “I know their players and coaches too well and they are far from a broken team. Their narrative will be that this is their last dance with some players leaving the club after their European campaign is over. Their motivation will be huge and while they will miss Owen Farrell as he is one of their heartbeats, they have so many others. They have experience and have been through success and adversity together. It makes them a tight, dangerous group and next weekend will be everything to them.”
Leinster and Saracens are run on similar lines, far more reliant on their academy players than big-name signings. It creates an identity and a unity that insulate them in difficult periods and make them formidable on the big occasion. “Our success is down to a number of reasons,” says Lancaster. “The average age of the squad is around 25 and because of the quality that is coming through, we should be very competitive in the next four or five years.
“Other than Scott Fardy, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park, we have pretty much got a homegrown team of players who were born and bred in the province. They have come either through a very talented schools system and high-performing academy system or a club system that brings real toughness and high quality. And we invest in coaches.”
Lancaster is at home in a foreign country, but if not international rugby full-time, what about the Lions in South Africa next year, with Warren Gatland mulling over his staff having already chatted with Leinster’s head coach? “I have not had any further conversations with him. I am sure he will be out and about speaking to people. Everyone would aspire to that but I have enough to think about with Saracens.”