At times England’s team base at Bagshot during the 2015 Rugby World Cup resembled a latter day stocks and pillory. A large canopy was erected in the grounds of the plush hotel in Surrey and a few times a week, the management were drilled on a raised platform.
Restrained by position and decorum, they sat still as the English media lined up to pelt them with loaded questions and unjustified insinuations of fraud.
Beating Fiji 35-11 in their first match, the England feelgood vibe was humming. A week later they lost 25-28 to Wales and each-way affection abruptly gave way to silence then anger, the headlines spelling it out. “Hosts’ World Cup dreams hanging by a thread after Welsh comeback.”
England were still in the World Cup. But they had to beat Australia in the next match. No go. A facile win against Uruguay was the last breath. England exited at the pool stages for the first time.
The two weeks between Wales and Uruguay fell into a grim routine of furious media exchanges with Andy Farrell or Stuart Lancaster. Baseless accusations flew of dad’s pick, Owen Farrell favoured and George Ford on the bench for the key games because of Andy’s influence.
Bringing rugby league convert Sam Burgess into the squad just months after his cross-code switch also provided a stick to beat whoever needed beating.
Lancaster inherited an England team that had essentially underperformed at the 2011 World Cup by going out in the quarter-finals. He took it upon himself to try to change everything, some things outside the box with trips to the north of England to soften perceived arrogance, reconnect players with ordinary people.
But the fallout became personal. Rob Andrew, a drop goal England hero of the 1992 World Cup quarter-final, blamed the entire episode on Lancaster. Months later the head coach was still living with the outcome.
“You think about it every minute of most days, or every day really,” Lancaster told BBC Radio Five. “A lot of things have happened since then but equally it’s still very fresh in my mind. It’s been a tough six months.”
He added that he was desperate to coach again, ideally with a Southern Hemisphere team. Leinster saw an opportunity. An encouraging personal text message arrived to him from Johnny Sexton. Within months Lancaster was landing in Leinster with a unique rugby world view.
This week Robbie Henshaw spoke about the coach who came to Dublin five years ago. Lancaster sat the players down and opened up to them about how he felt, crushed and vulnerable. From that initial expression of personal honesty, he grew within the squad as much as a person as a coach.
Each week since, players have eloquently spoken of Lancaster as they did of Joe Schmidt in terms of respect but quite differently in terms of personality and style.
Lancaster conversed as much as instructed, asked players how they thought they were doing, what they thought they could improve on. He introduced the unstructured, structured approach, the idea that every move in every competitive game cannot always be prescriptive.
He gave them confidence in themselves and license to play rugby as they saw it in front of them in real time within an overall Leinster doctrine. Because of that and played at its best it was incredibly difficult for opposition teams’ defences.
He also brought an understated charisma and commanded deference from his biggest potential critics, the media. Articulate and with his north of England, Penrith accent, Lancaster has radiated approachability and consideration, although, not without a pinch of English reserve. An avid journal keeper, he writes everything down.
His commitment to his family, flying to Leeds each week for a night or two, was as good as he could be about it, the onerous routine seen equally as a commitment to Leinster. As good as you can be, is what he asks of the players.
When his father John suddenly died, he came to understand how the parochial in Leinster was strength, not weakness, its inspiration not its binding, the bonds and ambitions of players forged within the club aspiring always to make it bigger and better and rarely looking beyond.
He told Leinster it was unnecessary for them to attend the funeral, suggesting they didn’t know his father and that it would be disruptive to the team.
Respectfully ignoring the gentle protestations, coaching staff and players flew from Dublin to Manchester. Staying in a Travel Lodge hotel they all drove to the little village, where his father was buried. He learned of the Irish attitude towards grief.
Three years ago, Lancaster spoke of what he has done with the experience of coaching England 50 times. “Pretty much everything has been given to Leinster and, indirectly, to Ireland,” he said.
That’s the sense of him players impart. Leinster got Lancaster on the rebound after a good relationship soured. From there he and Leinster existed like a chemical reaction that worked both ways. He changed the Leinster product and the Leinster product changed him.
That is where the power of his years here has come from, not just the ability to convey knowledge to players but in the understanding that both ways’ exchange is mutually empowering.
Players are never explicit about their affections or respect for coaches, but all leave a vapour trail, Lancaster’s when he departs at the end of the season, likely to linger longer than most.