The Queensland Reds got in touch and Toulon came calling. Should Mike Ford, appointed last week, mess things up in Toulon Lancaster’s phone may well ring again, although either option would have caused huge disruption to family life with two teenage kids in the middle of exams. Lancaster has been invited to join the review of British Cycling in the wake of the whole Shane Sutton affair and the rugby expert continues to work for the Football Association.
He spent time as defence coach for Counties Manakau in New Zealand and, in the wake of the NFL’s concussion crisis, Lancaster showed the Atlanta Falcons how rugby players tackle without helmets but with relative safety. On top of all that he was hired by the USA’s fledgling PRO Rugby to mentor the five club coaches ahead of the inaugural season where Lancaster was surprisingly candid about the lessons he has learned along what has been a bumpy road.
It quickly becomes clear that the former England coach is keen to look forward rather than sift through ancient history and if Leinster do not return to winning ways this season it won’t be for a want of coaching expertise. The Dublin club had already invited Sir Graham Henry in over the summer and that statement of intent was followed by another, the appointment of Lancaster as “senior coach” under Leo Cullen. What does the Englishman make of the Guinness Pro12 in the short time he has had to acclimatise?
“I think the standard at the top end is very good,” says Lancaster. “My first game was against Glasgow and they are very well coached, lots of good players. Similarly Edinburgh came back well in the second half. The difference is that Glasgow took their opportunities and Edinburgh did not.
“We played the Ospreys this weekend and they have Alun-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Dan Bigger and Rhys Webb. We have Johnny Sexton back so there are a lot of top-class players in this league.
“I think the Aviva Premiership probably has 12 teams any one of which can beat any other on their day and I think the Pro12 has many teams that would compete with those at the top end in Europe.It’s a powerful league and only getting better.”
Leinster needed a mentor for Cullen, who is not long finished his playing career, and when defence coach Kurt McQuilkin was called back to New Zealand for family reasons they had the opening they needed. The defence part of the deal was headlined but Lancaster confirms that he will look at all aspects of play, or at least he will once he is properly bedded in.
“The Glasgow game for me was very much my first day on the job really so I was more focused on Leinster rather than the opposition. As an incoming coach you are just trying to remember everyone’s name and learn about the systems that are in place.
“I think as someone who used to be the lead coach I am used to dealing with defence and attack but Kurt went back home so someone had to pick up where he left off. My first week it was mostly defence, whereas in the second week it was a combination of both (defence and attack).
“Leo Cullen is the head coach and what it means is that Leo has more time to deal with a lot of other things like the relationship with Ireland’s national team and the media and dealing with selection. I don’t profess to know enough about the club or about the players to get involved in all that.
“It probably suits me to go back to being a more hands-on coach than I ever was with England. People don’t appreciate all the things that take you away from the coaching and I have been a coach ever since being a teacher really so it’s nice to be able to concentrate on that.”
If Lancaster had a tough time of it against Wales and Australia [in the World Cup] he is one of the vanishingly few men to have bested Steve Hansen’s All Blacks. In fact his England side handed New Zealand their heaviest defeat in more than a century when running out 38-21 winners at Twickenham in 2012.
It is generally reckoned to mark a high point in the Cumbrian’s coaching career but two years later a narrow loss against the same opposition was arguably more remarkable. In 2014 he took a scratch England team, peppered with relative unknowns (Joe Gray anyone?) to Eden Park where New Zealand were unbeaten in 20 years. England were leading inside the final quarter and came within two minutes of a famous draw. One week later they lost the second Test by one point in Dunedin before being overwhelmed in the third and final tie. Warren Gatland could do a lot worse than utilise Lancaster’s know-how on next year’s Lions trip.
“If the preparation is right I genuinely believe the Lions can do well in New Zealand,” Lancaster insists. “As Wales found over the summer when they lost heavily to the Chiefs, it isn’t just the Saturday matches that the Lions need to be wary of, it’s the Tuesday games as well. They will have almost the same intensity as the Saturday games and Warren will be at full stretch with his coaching team managing all those games. He needs his big players to be ready for the Tests.
“But the Lions can bring a lot of traditional Northern Hemisphere virtues that can challenge New Zealand, including our defensive structures and set-piece game alongside a much improved skill set.”
How, exactly, did England pull off that famous win back in 2012?
“Our line speed was good throughout and we pressured them into making a few errors,” replies Lancaster. “We forced errors and then took advantage of them to build a lead. When you have a lead you force the opposition into playing more rugby and you look for an interception or a turnover as a result. It was a combination of putting pressure on them with line speed and at the breakdown and then taking our opportunities. I think we took every one on the day.
“But NZ have the ability to create something from nothing and it’s important that you don’t lose your composure when you are under pressure and stay in the game for the full 80 minutes, as Ireland discovered to their cost.”
Edinburgh are looking for a first-class coach at the end of this season. Lancaster is available at the end of this season. And the last time Edinburgh had a former England coach at the helm the club finished at an all-time high, second in the Pro12 on Andy Robinson’s watch. Might he throw his hat in that particular ring?
“I am genuinely open-minded about anything, but I am focusing on Leinster. Leinster are a top European club and there is no reason we can’t be back at the top given the players we have in the squad. Over the years and in particularly recently I’ve learned not to look too far ahead.”
Given the rodeo ride he has had recently that is probably wise.