Timing is everything. When Robbie Henshaw moved to Leinster from Connacht in 2016, it coincided with the arrival of Stuart Lancaster.
The Leinster, Irish and Lions centre reckons he’s fortunate to have learned from some brilliant coaches and rates Lancaster has highly as any of them for the influence he’s had on Henshaw’s career and on the province.
Both Leinster and Lancaster, discarded by England after their pool exit as hosts for the 2015 World Cup, were at a low ebb, but each would prove transformative for the other.
“It was massively important for everyone,” recalled Henshaw of Lancaster’s arrival six years ago this month. “He came in and shared his story. He was very vulnerable with what he went through post-World Cup as the head coach of England. He gave us his full story, so he immediately had our respect for that.
“His honesty and his resilience as well, it was really eye-opening how he built himself back up and came in and took this club by the scruff of the neck, shook it up and got it going in the right direction. He has been brilliant for me, always positive but always challenging me.”
On foot of Lancaster confirming his departure to Racing 92 at the season’s end at an emotional squad meeting last Monday, Henshaw admitted:
“It’s going to be a big loss for us, given what he has done the last seven years. He is a great character and a great coach. A coach that really has an impact on a lot of players personally with how he treats you and how he gives you time, how he will open the floor to you and ask you what you think, how he can challenge you to grow as a player and as a leader.
“Racing are getting a brilliant coach but we have the rest of the season to do our best and send him off on a high.”
By dint of his infamous Tuesday training sessions, his individual relationships with the players and in overseeing both their defence and attack, Lancaster helped transform a team which had a winning ratio of 60% and a try-scoring average of two per game in the season before he joined to one whose figures rose to 80% and four tries per game.
They maintained those averages for six seasons as they won a Champions Cup, reached two more finals, two semi-finals and a quarter-final, as well as winning five successive Pro14 titles.
The most consistently prolific and competitive side in Europe during Lancaster’s time, in truth they were a little unlucky not to win more. Asked what has been Lancaster’s biggest contribution, Henshaw said: “The way he trains us.
“Again, [he is] a different coach in the sense that he would look to other high-performing teams. He would look at the likes of the LA Lakers, the Patriots, and take bits of how they were coached under pressure and bring that into our training and into our preparation.
“So, he wouldn’t just look at rugby alone, he would look at a wide variety of sports and successful teams, how they won trophies and what we could take from their mindset, their processes and drive it forward for us.
“Probably the game-changer with him was the training on Tuesdays, the ‘Stuesdays’, and he would always integrate every player. There was never anyone standing on the sideline. You would always have 40 players in training and just getting players better.
“Even the non-23 [matchday] players on a Friday, he would always be out there coaching. What he has given to the club, his effort and his process in training, has fed into our performances and got us those trophies.”
As for Henshaw personally, Lancaster helped him further hone his distribution skills while bringing a somewhat shy character out of his shell.
“He has always looked at different centres across the world and different traits and asked ‘can you do this, can you grow this in your game?’ Distribution, taking on the line as he says, being physical, just always trying to grow my game and I have a lot of respect for a coach who always asks your opinion.
“I like that as a player. It’s always a nice way to have a conversation, as opposed to be being told to do it in such and such a way. That’s my take on it. The leadership side of things, as you know, he is massive on. That is another area he said I could always grow, always get better at. I would be quiet enough in and around the team environment, but he is always challenging me to speak when I have something to say.”
Henshaw revealed that even in the losing dressing-room in Marseille after the distressing defeat by La Rochelle last May, Johnny Sexton mentioned this season’s final Champions Cup final being in Dublin, and the centre spoke of sending Lancaster and the captain cum “player-coach” off with silverware.
To that end, while next Friday’s meeting between Ulster and Leinster – the early URC pacesetters with 23 tries between them already – at a partisan Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm) will not decide any silverware, it is the match-up of the season to date.
There will be particular interest in the battle at inside centre between the in-form Stuart McCloskey – Ulster’s cause célèbre once more – and Henshaw.
“He’s been brilliant for Ulster,” said Henshaw.
“He’s their go-to man at the moment and has been to change a game. He is playing immense stuff so we will have to be ready for the physicality and Luke Marshall as well, give him a shout. It’s been great to see him back playing. He’s had a tough time the last few years and he is plang great stuff as well.”
The show goes on, and how.