Interview: Stuart Lancaster relishing new life at Leinster as he plots downfall of high-flying Wasps

Mick Cleary
Stuart Lancaster (centre) puts the Leinster players through their paces - Rex Features

Dublin may have proved the graveyard of English dreams a fortnight ago but it has been the backdrop to the re-birth of one particular Englishman’s fortunes in the shape of Stuart Lancaster, now a prime coaching influence at Leinster.

That the self-same Aviva Stadium where Eddie Jones’s Grand Slam hopes perished only a fortnight ago will play host to a high-octane Anglo-Irish encounter on Saturday when high-flying Wasps face an equally vibrant Irish province in the first of the European Champions Cup quarter-finals.

It is one of those neat variations in the disaster-and-triumph narratives. From the low of World Cup exit with England to possible acclaim ringing round the Aviva stands for the input to an Irish cause, Lancaster has travelled the spectrum of sporting experience over the last 18 months. 

And it seems he will remain an ex-pat plying his trade across the Irish Sea with Lancaster revealing he is intent on taking up an option on the offer of a two-year extension to his contract as senior coach that began at the start of the this season.

Stuart Lancaster coaching Leinster Credit: REX FEATURES

“I am here with positive thoughts about the next two years and although it (the contract) has not been finalised and confirmed, I am certainly not looking at other options,” said Lancaster, who commutes weekly from his family home in Leeds, the strain of which he tolerates in exchange for being back on the big stage.

“Yes, it does feel like that this week. The Aviva is pretty much sold out and all our Ireland players are back with us. You can tell its importance by the intensity of the players’ mindsets. You can see the big players stepping up. It has been rewarding for me to get back into coaching because the longer the England job went on, probably the less I did.

“There has been no ego involved with me being at Leinster as (head coach) Leo Cullen was very open-minded. I have not changed my overall belief about how the game should be played. I look back to when I was with England, look at some of the rugby we played, how we defended and we played some decent rugby.”

Stuart Lancaster in his previous role as England coach Credit: GETTY IMAGES

There are several intriguing match-ups in prospect across the Aviva field on Saturday, and a few reprised from the international arena, with the likes of no-holds-barred flankers Sean O’Brien and James Haskell (who faces a fitness test) and backs Gary Ringose and Elliot Daly.

There is, of course, a blend of nationalities in the Wasps side where Australia’s Kurtley Beale has proved such a wonderful asset and the recently-arrived Sprinbok, Willie le Roux, adding to the spicy mix. Lancaster is charged with preventing them from having an undue bearing.

There is also another Wasps playmaker in his sights, fly-half Danny Cipriani, someone whom Lancaster has coached since early in his career. Even though Cipriani was never to dislodge the front-runners for the England No 10 shirt, George Ford and Owen Farrell, Lancaster did take him on tour to New Zealand in 2014. The former England head coach has certainly been impressed by Cipriani’s play in a Wasps shirt.

Leinster v Wasps | Anglo-Irish match-ups

“Danny is playing some great rugby at the moment and is pulling the strings for Wasps,” said Lancaster. “He is a major weapon for them while having other ball-players, such as Beale or Jimmy Gopperth, in the back-line has freed Danny up. A lot of the play is coming through him and he is someone we need to be very much aware of.”

Leinster will target the defensive game of Cipriani through the muscular runs of centre Robbie Henshaw in much the way that England made a beeline for Ireland and Leinster fly-half Johnny Sexton, who was pounded time and again in that game by Haskell, and others, yet rose from the canvas every time.

Even though doubts have been raised about the durability of Sexton, who has had spells on the sidelines with various injuries, Lancaster has no concerns in that regard.

Johnny Sexton was targeted during the Six Nations Credit: PA

“A lot of Johnny’s injuries have been niggles and he is certainly feeling robust, 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 defence, he likes to take the ball to the line. And, inevitably, if you are going to do both those things, you are going to get bumps and bruises along the way. You wouldn’t want him to go into a game less than confident in his physical preparation because that is his strength. Johnny is a brilliant player, very coachable.”

Wasps travel in buoyant mood even though their pool campaign was compromised by a refereeing cock-up that cost them points against Connacht and with it, possible crucial home advantage in the knockouts.

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Both teams are top of their respective piles, leading try-scorers, and Leinster will certainly be looking to avenge last season’s double-whacking by Wasps in the pool stage, an aggregate 84-16 scoreline.

A capacity Aviva Stadium, as was shown a fortnight ago, will be a boost to Leinster chances.

“The Aviva can be right up there, a very intimidating stadium,” said Lancaster, who was not at the Ireland-England game. “Certainly the noise through my television set was pretty loud. If we can rekindle that same emotion in the crowd.

“(Last season) is part of the picture I will be discussing. It will burn in the minds of our players. If we are loose, Wasps can hurt you. It’s the first of the quarter-finals and hopefully we will set the benchmark.”

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