Stuart Lancaster has a calm aura about him and that didn’t change when facing the media yesterday. Nonetheless one could tell it had been one of his more emotional days when he confirmed to the players beforehand that he was indeed bound for Racing 92 next summer, so ending his seven years with Leinster at the end of this season.
“It’s obviously a difficult decision to leave Leinster for a whole variety of reasons. The opportunity Leinster gave me back in 2016 and what has resulted from that has made me the coach I am really because I’d left the England job and there wasn’t really a huge number of offers at the time.”
Reflecting on how a one-year deal led to three more two-year contracts, Lancaster said: “I was only walking back through the airport last night – well it was actually 12.30 this morning because the flight was delayed – thinking ‘I wonder how many flights I’ve now done in the last seven years?’
“And I have never once sat in the airport in Leeds/Bradford and thought ‘I don’t want to get on this plane’. I’ve always wanted to come. I’ve always wanted to coach the players, I’ve always wanted to be involved, and that’s what makes it such a hard place to leave because you have got such good people, good values, great academy, great former players who I have coached. Yeah, it was tough telling the players today.”
What made it especially tough was his relationship with Cullen, whom he had him informed before the story broke last week and left Cullen facing questions in the media.
“I would much rather that I would have been the one to deal with it because it was my decision. It put him in a difficult position. I felt bad for Leo to be honest.
“What he said was what he believes, there is a natural evolution in teams anyway. He’s seen it in his career as a coach, and as a player as well. We all have. There is a natural evolution in coaching teams. Nothing ever stays the same. So it will be a sad day when I go for sure.
“It’s very early in the season. We’ve Ulster on Friday. I will be glad when today is done,” he said in reference to Leinster’s trek to Belfast for an enticing clash between the two early URC pacesetters, and which should see the seasonal bow of Jamison Gibson-Park, although Caelan Doris will undergo the return-to-play protocols and has been ruled out.
Of himself and Cullen, Lancaster said: “We just hit it off from day one. And from that day on we’ve never had a cross word, we’ve never fallen out, we’ve always shared ideas. I’ve helped him but in a lot of ways he’s helped me.
“I actually said to the players that I started writing a list of things I’d learned since I’ve been here, things that made me think, ‘God, I’ve never thought of that before’. Anyway, someone said something to me at a meeting the other day and I got my list out again, wrote it down and it was number 158.
“That’s 158 lessons learned since I’ve been here. That’s not me passing on lessons, that’s me learning from people here, whether it’s the players or the staff, and probably a lot of them have come from Leo.”
There had been offers from abroad previously but when in the middle of a contract with Leinster. This time Racing had headhunted him, nine months in advance, and offered him a chance “to go outside my comfort zone”, to scratch an itch to be a head coach again, and in the Top14.
“It is a big, exciting competition and the challenge of coaching a team over there I think is significant for me, a) because of the quality of players and the quality of the tournament, the ambition of the club, and b) the language as well. That is going to be a real challenge, but I think for the development of my own coaching and to not finish your career with regrets, thinking ‘I could have done this or I should have done that’, that was probably the biggest driver that convinced me to take the opportunity.”
While there will be decisions to be made at Racing, most of that has already been done, and it will have “no bearing” on his last season with Leinster.
“We obviously came up just short last year in Europe, heartbreakingly in the last play of the final, and with the final being in Dublin as well, plus the URC disappointment we had, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind where my loyalty will be.”
With Mick Dawson moving on after 21 years as CEO next month, and Johnny Sexton also entering his last season, this looks like a challenging time ahead for Leinster.
But Lancaster countered: “I would say part of the job of a coach is to make yourself redundant really, to do a good job where you’ve developed them, their game understanding, their skills, their knowledge, their ownership of the team and I do think Leinster are like that now.”
While Sexton will be “missed massively”, he cited leaders such as Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park, while noting Will Connors, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien were first-year academy players when he arrived.
“Lads have grown up and become international players while I’ve been here. They’ve got engaged, they’ve got married and had kids since I’ve been here. So I think Leinster are very well set up for the future.
“I do think the players will be able to drive a lot themselves and hopefully a new coach will come in, bring new ideas, which I think will be good for the group anyway. Is it the seven year itch? I don’t think it is to be honest, but I don’t think it will do Leinster any harm to have a different voice either.”
He has signed a four-year deal.
“Hopefully I’ll stay there for four years, learn the language, everything that comes with it, then there could be other opportunities to, who knows, maybe come back to Ireland at some point. There’s still a long way to go in my career hopefully, but I think it will be a good step forward for me to do it, to be honest.”