Last Saturday week,before he’d oversee Leinster steamroll Connacht in the RDS, Stuart Lancaster popped over to DCU on the other side of town to speak to coaches from all sports and all over the country on the theme of talent development.
It was part of the terrific coach masterclass conference that David Passmore, a lecturer in coaching science at the college as well as a former coach to the national senior hockey team, puts on every year and that is precisely what Lancaster delivered in his one-hour morning slot — a masterclass.
Often big-name speakers can be very guarded and vague at conferences but Lancaster was remarkably generous and humble in what he offered, striking that delicate balance between not betraying any confidences yet not insulting those who had travelled to hear and learn from him.
Lancaster himself through the years has travelled far and wide to learn from others, including clubs in the AFL as well as the All Blacks in his own sport. But what was particularly intriguing was when he mentioned in passing that he had also collaborated inrecent years with a variety of Irish set-ups, including the Dublin footballers.
What the nature of that collaboration was, he didn’t reveal, but some concepts he spoke about seemed as if they had been previously bounced off and honed by Jim Gavin.
“A senior manager needs to understand The Performance Clock,” Lancaster would tell delegates. At times a team might only be at eight o’clock. But other times it might be at 11 o’clock. The trick was to make sure that you didn’t wait until midnight.
“The best teams make changes before change is needed.”
During games Gavin had a habit of checking a watch to help keep control of his emotions as well as track time but ahead of any game he obviously kept an eye on another clock. In his first season as Dublin senior manager, a fifth of his starting line-up that won the national league were all teenagers — Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey, and Ciaran Kilkenny — while Dean Rock, in his first full spring campaign, would come on to kick the winning point.
Four years later though when Dublin would lose a grip of their league crown for the first time under Gavin, losing to Kerry by precisely the same scoreline they had beaten Tyrone by back in 2013, with Rock this time missing a last-gasp kick, Gavin had started Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, and Diarmuid Connolly up front.
Only the previous August all three had been pivotal in pipping Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s side in an epic All-Ireland semi-final and the mainstays of their 2013 and 2015 victorious teams. Yet after that league final defeat to Kerry, Brogan (33 at the time) and Flynn (a month shy of his 31st birthday) were dropped for the championship opener against Carlow, having to make way for Con O’Callaghan and Niall Scully coming right off winning an U21 All-Ireland. That same evening down in Dr Cullen Park was also Connolly’s last meaningful start in a championship game; as well as picking up a suspension, he was just a month out from his 30th birthday.
It was a bold call, benching, and in many ways, discarding, three All-Decade talents but Gavin was merely adhering to a principle of Lancaster’s: Win Now AND Look To The Future.
“If you’re only interested in the here and now,” Lancaster would proclaim, “your talent systems will be limited.”
Lancaster knows from experience how dangerous it can be favouring those more inexperienced. This month eight years ago for his first game as England senior national coach, his starting lineup featured just 220 international caps between them while Scotland in the opposite corner had over 500. England would win eight of their following Six Nations games — but after the letdown of the 2015 home World Cup, he was dismissed.
In his four years and 46 games in charge, only twice did England’s starting line-up have more caps than their opponents. He was nearly looking to 2019 as much as 2015. But in failing to Win Now, he didn’t get to oversee that future.
He’d admit in DCU that it can still sting a bit, that he watched England’s march to the 2019 World Cup final with a mixture of “pride and what if”. A lot of those players he had helped bring through, either as coach to the national team or as the RFU’s elite rugby director the four years prior to that appointment, in which he guided their U20s to three World Cup finals. So would he have favoured youth as stridently as he did had he had the time all over again? Yes, he’d say in DCU, he would.
What he’s learned is that everyone has to buy into talent development, from the top down. In England, that wasn’t necessarily the case, causing a huge number of pathway coaches to depart the scene upon seeing Lancaster’s dismissal.
In Leinster though he has found the perfect environment, from Mick Dawson as CEO to Leo Cullen as head coach right down to the grassroots, creating “an incredible pathway”. While he initially was approached by Cullen to help coach and advise the senior set-up, he admits that he pretty much “jumped into the whole programme”.
And so that’s why the Monday after Leinster would demolish Connacht 54-7 hours after his masterclass, he and Cullen had the entire academy team and its coaches in with the senior team reviewing that game. “Your academy has to be integrated with your senior team.” And they won’t just be passive in those meetings either. They’ll be asked questions. Why do you think New Zealand didn’t win the World Cup?
The previous week over 42 players had trained with the senior squad, with the youngsters not just called up to act as tackle bags or mannequins replicating Connacht’s likely moves.
Instead, academy players were playing alongside regular veterans. He talks to schools in the province, and parents, about the relative age effect, how the path to the top isn’t smooth but rocky, how he and the system encourage players to play other sports as they offer a variety of transferable skills.
IN his eyes, Leinster have an “incredible pathway”.
“There is no reason they won’t be at the top level unless someone does something drastically wrong.”
He does not intend to be that someone who does something drastically wrong. It will be interesting if Lancaster does continue to collaborate with Dublin GAA and ever meet up with Gavin’s successor, Dessie Farrell.
This past winter one of their nearest challengers, Mayo GAA in the form of James Horan, observed a Leinster session while team coach James Burke was in attendance in DCU for the masterclass. Both teams have defences, in particular, ticking somewhere after 10 o’clock, in Mayo’s case, closer to midnight.
In Farrell, Dublin have something of a Lancaster himself, someone who has helped produce a lot of stellar underage talent.
But for him and Horan, it will be quite the challenge with so few veterans having retired (in Dublin only Brogan and Eoghan O’Gara have opted out for 2020, and in Mayo, just Andy Moran and Ger Cafferkey) to maybe inform some of those who have opted to stay on that they are peripheral and even possibly surplus to requirements; unlike Martin Johnson’s underachieving squad that Lancaster shook and broke up, these are thirtysomethings that have been central to an exceptional decade for their county.
Another new coach by the name of Farrell, only one already well known to Lancaster, should have more scope to be more ruthless in light of Japan 2019.
If it’s a tight call between a veteran and a younger player, Lancaster tends to favour the younger player. It’s what he himself did anyway before playing Scotland in the opening game of the 2012 Six Nations.
Will Andy Farrell go the same way before playing Scotland in the opening game of the 2020 Six Nations?
Either way, his oldmentor — and thePerformance Clock — will monitor with interest.