It would be fascinating to know how Stuart Lancaster feels when Eddie Jones praises his predecessor’s part in England’s resurgence. Does it open old wounds or help the healing process? Unfortunately, however, the answer is not imminent. England was off limits this week as Lancaster’s Leinster prepare to face Wasps in their Champions Cup quarter-final – understandable perhaps but, if it is because the 2015 World Cup failure remains his cross to bear, it is a great shame.
History will remember him as both the man who brought integrity back to the wilted Red Rose and whose limitations were exposed under intense scrutiny, but it is nearly 18 months since Lancaster was shown the door at Twickenham. It now seems less relevant to refer to Lancaster as the former England head coach rather than the man breathing new life into Leinster.
Since arriving as senior coach – his remit is to work under Leo Cullen, looking after both attack and defence – Leinster have been reinvigorated and already scored 28 more Pro12 tries than they did last season. The emergence of players such as Ross and Adam Byrne, Joey Carbery and Dan Leavy has been accelerated by Lancaster, instrumental in youth development with Leeds and the Rugby Football Union, and while they failed to make it to the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup last season, on Saturday they host Wasps at the Aviva Stadium in the last eight, having scored the most tries in the pool stages.
“The rewarding thing about the role in particular is that I can really get into the coaching side of things again,” said Lancaster, who confirmed he is close to agreeing to a further two years at Leinster. “Leo was very open-minded about me coming in, there was no ego about me getting involved in the coaching and me putting my stamp on [things]. It was very rewarding to get back into that part of coaching because the longer the England job went on, probably the less I did.
“You’re always learning about coaching but the basics in terms of how I coach and how a team should defend and should attack haven’t changed really. I look back to when I was with England, look at some of the rugby we played and how we defended, we played some decent rugby.”
Leinster versus Wasps kicks off the quarter-finals and has all the hallmarks of a contest for the ages. There are numerous subplots, some more obvious than others with Joe Launchbury, James Haskell and Elliot Daly returning to the Irish capital two weeks after they were denied the grand slam. And as Lancaster acknowledges, he has coached most of the Wasps players at some stage of his career, including Danny Cipriani – the ringleader for Dai Young’s great entertainers.
“He is playing some great rugby at the moment,” said Lancaster. “He has really benefited from the Wasps attacking philosophy and system. With two other ball players in Jimmy Gopperth and Kurtley Beale in the backline it has freed him up but he is still the guy who pulls the strings. He’s a major weapon for Wasps.
“They have a very unique way of playing and Leinster are quite different to Ireland. We know that if we’re loose with possession, Wasps can hurt you on the counterattack like no other team can.”
Lancaster has previously said that a phone call from Johnny Sexton urging him to join Leinster was a key reason for him doing so, and it does not take long to realise the esteem in which he holds the Ireland fly-half. After missing the first two matches of the Six Nations, Sexton returned for the next three and withstood considerable pressure against England. But did that performance answer questions over durability with the Lions series in New Zealand looming large?
“He’s certainly feeling very robust and strong and confident and he needs to feel that way,” said Lancaster. “He very much reminds me of Owen Farrell. He likes to lead the defensive line, he likes to take the ball to the line. And inevitably if you’re doing both those things you’re going to get some bumps and bruises along the way. You wouldn’t want him to go into a game less than confident in his physical preparation – that’s his strength.”
Leinster’s resurgence becomes all the more evident when considering their European campaign last term. They lost all but one of their pool matches, including home and away to Wasps, conceding 84 points across the two matches.
“It’s part of the picture I’ll be discussing with the players,” said Lancaster. “It’s important to learn what happened last year. It’s important to understand why Wasps were so good on those days but also why Leinster allowed them to be.”