Poor old Stuart Lancaster.
Sacked on the back of England’s dismal World Cup showing on home soil in 2015, the Leinster senior coach now finds himself implicated, indirectly, in Ireland’s tortured 2019 campaign which was brought to a limp end by the All Blacks in Tokyo.
Isa Nacewa spoke during the tournament in Asia about how Ireland had adopted a more unstructured approach in 2018, and to great effect, before reverting to a more cautious and functional style of play this year. It was an insight given significant weight by Nacewa’s knowledge of, and deep respect for, Joe Schmidt.
It was Brian O’Driscoll who introduced Lancaster’s name into this curious pot. The former Ireland captain suggested that the influence of the former England head coach and his ‘unstructured chaos’ philosophy at Leinster may have “upset the apple cart” when it came to the national team.
“Did that cast a few doubts into players’ minds of what way they needed to train and what they needed to focus on? I wonder did that dynamic change things a little bit,” O’Driscoll said on Off the Ball some weeks ago.
This sort of chin-stroking has prompted all manner of spin-off discussions, among them the idea that there should be one ‘Irish’ way of playing the game that could be stitched into the fabric of all the provinces and the various national sides.
Lancaster responded to all this by taking us back nine years to a time when he was running the English union’s academy programme and he gave a presentation about the various styles used by the Premiership’s top clubs.
All four of the top sides in the English league that year played a different way, he explained. His point to the audience of academy managers at the various clubs, and to the media here, was that there is no right way or wrong way to play the game.
“What is important is that you want to have a real clear philosophy on how you want to play the game, what you believe in, and you have got to be able to execute that under pressure in the big moments,” he said ahead of Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup opener at home to Benetton this Saturday.
“Leinster play different to Munster, play differently to Ulster, play different to Connacht. There’s no right or wrong way. What you have got to do is execute when it comes to World Cups. What I’ve found to my experience is if you don’t execute in the big pressure moments, you don’t get a second chance. That’s the reality of it.”
Lancaster’s galvanising effect on Leinster since his arrival from England has been heralded time and again by players and his fellow coaches at the club. His reputation, ruined by the sour end to his tenure as head coach with England, has been restored and his style of play embraced by the wider public.
Leinster’s convincing defeat of Connacht in Galway last Friday night demonstrated again just how pretty and effective Lancaster’s vision can be with the first try coming courtesy of some slick hands by various members of the front row union.
But he wonders if people really understand what ‘unstructured chaos’ actually means. It is not, he asserts, a style devoid of structure. Training sessions are not free-for-all occasions of makey-up, or attempts to replicate a Barbarians brand of rugby.
“What we are trying to achieve is a balance between the real importance of starter plays and execution at set-pieces and everything else: to be very good at that but also be very good when the game becomes into phases three to 10, let’s call it.
“Not only that, but you are equally as comfortable in defence and you have got a very clear system in defence about how you are going to defend. I can’t comment on Ireland because I wasn’t there and I don’t know what they did in camp and how it all played out.” He has no wish to delve into the depths of Ireland’s World Cup travails. To do so would be to spit in another man’s soup. What he does advocate is a no-holds-barred review among those involved.
The IRFU completes just such a process after every World Cup. Lancaster is no stranger to these, having performed them after every block of games played by England under his watch as head coach.
The Cumbrian was also involved in other reviews for underage representative teams and he believes the process is one that should incorporate everything from selections decisions to training sessions and camp facilities.
“You do it because you want to get better. I know there’s been a lot of noise about Ireland not doing well but we shouldn’t forget how much Joe (Schmidt) has done for Ireland. When I arrived here, the fingerprints of Joe were all over this organisation in a really positive way, and still there now.”
Lancaster has promised to do everything in his power to help the new Ireland management team to succeed.
He worked with new head coach Andy Farrell across five years for England. Mike Catt, Ireland’s new attack coach, spent four seasons alongside him. John Fogarty, who takes over as scrum guru, has worked with him at Leinster and the forwards coach, Simon Easterby, played with him at Leeds 20 years ago.
“That’s not to say they will play the same way as Leinster. That’s not what it’s about.”
The pity, from an Irish point of view, is that he won’t be working with them again.