Lancaster teaming up with Farrell would be logical next step for dominant Ireland
Leinster’s former England coach works with bulk of the squad already and might be intrigued by challenge of returning to top level of the game
European rugby returns next weekend, and all eyes – mine included – will be on the champions, Leinster. After Ireland’s all-conquering autumn, more than ever it feels as if Leo Cullen’s men are the team to beat in European rugby’s biggest club competition.
That is rather stating the obvious, of course. Leinster play the best rugby. They have the best players. And crucially, they can afford to rest the best players. Not one of their stars who played in Ireland’s dramatic win against New Zealand in Dublin last month (Leinster provided over half the team, with Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney all in the starting XV) played in their Pro 14 match at the Dragons yesterday. And that was despite having last weekend off as well, with Ireland putting out a second-string team to face the United States.
Can anything derail Leinster? I am not sure. But one thing which might alter the dynamic just a little bit – albeit not this season – would be if senior coach Stuart Lancaster joined Andy Farrell at Ireland after next year’s World Cup.
The announcement that Farrell is to succeed Joe Schmidt post-Japan 2019 is an absolutely fascinating development and I am intrigued to see how it plays out. It is clear that he is part of a very positive coaching environment that has been built up around the provinces and the national team.
Clearly he lacks experience as a No 1 but you only need to listen to the players with whom he has worked to realise in what esteem he is held. Remember, he has two Lions tours with Warren Gatland under his belt. Warren always holds on to good people, and it is that approach which has given the stability to Wales through their support group. He will certainly have a stable base from which to start. To my mind, the big question is who he might bring in to work under him. Could the Irish Rugby Football Union possibly extend an invitation to Stuart, who has reinvented himself so successfully at Leinster? I can see it happening, I really can.
Stuart is already under an IRFU contract. The powerbrokers within Irish rugby, not to mention the players with whom Stuart works day to day at Leinster, clearly rate him very highly. He is already working with half the Irish squad, which would help with the transition.
It would make sense from a family point of view, too, with Stuart continuing to commute from Leeds as it stands. The international calendar would allow him longer periods at home.
I genuinely think Stuart would be intrigued by the challenge. And, of course, it would raise the prospect of England coming up against two coaches who they allowed to travel across the Irish Sea.
Stuart and Andy know and trust each other from their England days. I do not think it would be an issue that their roles would be reversed, with Stuart working under Andy rather than the other way around.
Stuart’s humility is one of his greatest strengths.
By his own admission, he felt as if he was being pulled in too many directions towards the end of his time at England. It’s probably his biggest regret.
He prefers to focus on the coaching. And he is clearly an exceptional coach.
I was intrigued to read Sam Burgess’s thoughts on the 2015 World Cup, which he published on Twitter this week, alleging that “individual egos” and “selfish players” were to blame for England’s poolstage exit at the tournament, and had “cost the coach and other great men” their jobs.
I do not know to whom Burgess was referring but what I do know is that Stuart has always been an outstanding coach.
And when he is able to focus on that – as he is now doing for Leinster – the results speak for themselves. Leinster did lose their last Champions Cup match, admittedly, by a point away at Toulouse but that is about all they have lost over an incredible 12 months.
I cannot see them slipping up in terms of qualification. Toulouse are top of the group and look to have their swagger back. But they still have to travel to Dublin.
It is a fascinating time of the season. I love this back-to-back European double header. A couple of wins can set you up for the festive period and the prospect of qualifying for the knockout stages next year. A couple of defeats can effectively end your European run and leave you staring at a long domestic dogfight. It’s real make-orbreak stuff.
Pool One, as I say, is intriguingly poised with Toulouse top on eight points. But they have a tough trip to Wasps next weekend with Dai Young’s team knowing that anything but a win will probably mean they
Stuart and Andy know and trust each other from their days together at England
Anything but a win for Wasps over Toulouse may mean they are dumped out
are dumped out of Europe in the pool stages. And Toulouse know that they have Leinster lurking just two points back. Bath will have to play exceptionally well to get anything out of the European champions at the Rec next Saturday.
In Pool Two, Exeter are bottom but they have the advantage of playing Gloucester at home in the first game of their double header. I think that is a real advantage in terms of building momentum.
Gloucester have moved on this season, with Danny Cipriani obviously having made a big impact. Some of their rugby has been great. But Exeter will have their international contingent back. And after Premiership success in 2017, they are desperate to prove themselves on the European stage. Like Wasps, the Chiefs know they have to win. I cannot see them slipping up.
The other group that catches my eye is Pool Five. Who could have foreseen that Newcastle, struggling in the Premiership after the highs of last season, would be top after two games?
Their trip to Edinburgh on Friday night is another really interesting fixture. Richard Cockerill has done a wonderful job there, but Edinburgh are still not as consistent as Glasgow. I would not put it past Newcastle to win.
Dream team? Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell worked together at England and could do the same with Ireland