Stuart Lancaster confirms Lions interest and lauds Johnny Sexton ahead of rugby's return

Warren Gatland has spoken of his huge respect for the former England head coach
Stuart Lancaster confirms Lions interest and lauds Johnny Sexton ahead of rugby's return
Stuart Lancaster, left, with Leinster backs coach Felipe Contepomi. Lancaster believes the lockdown has helped Jonathan Sexton. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Stuart Lancaster insists all talk of a coaching role with the British and Irish Lions next summer remains speculation though the Leinster guru has also admitted it is an opportunity he would dearly love.

The Leinster senior coach played down the same link in April when he spoke to the media during the lockdown from his home in Leeds but it has re-emerged as a distinct possibility after a Sky Sports podcast with Lions head coach Warren Gatland a week ago.

Gatland spoke of his huge respect for the former England head coach and confirmed the pair had spoken. The Kiwi is free to step up his preparations for next year’s planned tour now that his commitments with the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa have come to an end.

The Chiefs endured a miserable run of eight straight losses in the competition before the former Wales coach departed on a year-long sabbatical to oversee the Lions and he knows Lancaster well given they faced off in the Six Nations and at the 2015 World Cup.

Lancaster stressed that Gatland “definitely didn’t offer me a role with the Lions”, and that the conversation they shared recently didn’t necessarily hang on anything to to with the famous touring party, but his interest is obvious.

“As he said on the podcast, his next step would be to come back from New Zealand, speak to the CEOs of the unions and see which international coaches would be available,” said Lancaster who has been a huge success at Leinster.

“Obviously he has taken a certain coaching team before so it would be very much up to him to have those conversations, find out who is available and who would be interested in joining up with him.

“From a personal point of view, would I be interested? Of course. As a coach you want to coach at the highest level, you want to coach the best players and I don’t think it gets any higher than coaching the Lions against the current world champions but it’s speculation for the time being.”

The Englishman isn’t the only man at Leinster who will have designs on a role on the most famous touring party of them all at the back end of a monstrously long and demanding season that has been stretched and re-ordered by the vagaries of the coronavirus.

The club has become a consistent provider of raw materials for the Lions’ playing stocks on recent tours and will surely do so once again if they can pick up where they left off pre-shutdown, by which point they were unbeaten this season in PRO14 and Champions Cup fare.

Jonathan Sexton will be touching 36 by the time that eight-game tour kicks off but he signalled back in 2018 that a third stint in that famous red jersey was a personal goal and that remains a distinct possibility.

Gatland knows the Ireland No. 10 well given the Dubliner toured in 2017 in New Zealand and in Australia four years before. The veteran’s determination to remain at the top of his game was highlighted some months ago when he was pictured in sensational physical shape while working out.

Lancaster spoke of how the former world player of the year had returned to Leinster after Ireland’s Six Nations loss to England and just before the country went into lockdown and excelled in an otherwise routine session. The lockdown, he believes, has only helped him more.

“I am only back on the coaching field since last Monday but he has definitely used it well,” he explained. “The big markers for me are: is he training at every session? Yes. Has he got any niggles? No. What’s his speed endurance like? It’s good. What’s his skill and decision making like? It is excellent. Is he competitive in training? Yes. Is he holding people to account? Yes.

“His eye is in. He is definitely hungry but the other thing is you have got Ross Byrne who wants to start and Harry Byrne who is equally as competitive and has got an amazing skill set as well. So, between the three of them there is tremendous competition. He has not got it all his own way at all and that suits us really.”

The steps to be taken from now until that Lions window are many and tricky, not just in a rugby sense but in terms of a world grappling with a pandemic. A return to something closer to normality is at least approaching for the game here with Leinster due to face Munster in Dublin on Saturday week.

Leo Cullen’s side will be without Adam Byrne for that and some time after. The winger, who had endured a tough spell with injury in recent times, has had a procedure on a hamstring injury which is expected to keep him out for anything up to three months.

Dan Leavy, out since suffering a horrendous ligament injury 17 months ago, has yet to do a full week’s training. Leinster are still expressing their satisfaction with his progress but he is unlikely to play against Munster and even Ulster a week later may yet be too soon.

Lancaster also confirmed that James Ryan, originally said to be out for 12 weeks with a shoulder injury picked up in training, will not be sidelined for anything like that length of time.

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