It came as a surprise to many when Stuart Lancaster was named as the senior coach at Leinster at the start of the 16-17 Pro 12 season.
The end of Lancaster’s spell in charge of the England team was well documented and following his departure rumours linked him to jobs in club rugby in Australia, South Africa, France and more recently as Conor O’Shea’s replacement at Harlequins.
His decision to sign for the Irish team sees him join a Pro 12 side looking to develop both their new playing and coaching talent. Lancaster has a long history of working with young players in his role as Elite Rugby Director with the RFU and has experience of blooding new players at the highest level during his tenure at England.
I spoke to Stuart for Rugby Revealed and he shared his experience of developing young players and the best advice he ever received.
— The42.ie (@The42_ie) September 14, 2016
What do you look for in a young player?
You can only really begin to identify talent in a sport like rugby when players are around about 20, 21 years old. I think there is a misconception, particularly in England, that talent is identified and developed from 14. Certainly there are players who have talent at 14 but there are other factors that contribute to a player’s development. You can’t say for definite that if a player is talented at 14 they will be talented at 20 or are going to be an International player. The thing is to make sure that all the players, whatever programme they are in, remain committed to their own development because they never know when their opportunity may occur.
The best players I’ve coached, as an Academy Manager or with England, have got a combination of three areas they develop independently but are all equally important to be an elite player. One is physicality; there are certain requirements for physical attributes. Secondly is technical development, and third is the mental attitude, commitment, toughness. A lot of the players I’ve coached probably have 2 out of the 3. So they might be mentally strong and have physical gifts but ultimately they don’t have the technical ability for the game. Or they have all the technical ability and physical gifts but not the mental attitude to continue to work.
The players who are the best have all three qualities and are prepared to continue to develop all three, even when they have reached the top.
Are there still differences between coaching a Back and a Forward at a young age or are the skillsets blurring?
I think forwards are expected to do far more now than they were 10 years ago. One of the big challenges for coaches is to develop them technically in the set piece but also maintain that development of core skills – passing, catching, running lines, change of tempo/pace/direction – all those factors you need in a modern forward. I think there is a closer relationship between the two sets of players.
Ideally keep everything as broad as possible in terms of your development and don’t pigeon hole yourself into a position unless it’s clear and obvious. Certainly I’ve moved players into different positions as they’ve developed at 16, 17 and 18 because physically they are going to suit certain positions better than others.
It is important that players develop all skills, it’s not good enough now for a forward to say well I’m a great Tight Head but I can’t handle the ball. You’ve got to be able to do everything.
— CONQA Sport (@conqasport) June 27, 2016
How important are core skills at elite level?
You look at the best in the world at the moment, New Zealand, and there’s nothing particularly sophisticated about their game plan but they have a great core skills set. Their advantage is that rugby is the no 1 sport in their country and as a consequence players all play the game from a very young age and they achieve that ‘10,000 hour rule’ by the time they reach 18.
Those core skills are pretty much engrained through touch and pass games and the amount of rugby that they play in their early years. There’s a chance for all the countries to develop that level of playing programme or programme that helps them develop core skills as these are fundamental to the game. Under pressure, particularly at International level, you have very little time to think or breathe never mind execute unconsciously.
The key is to work on areas that are weak but don’t ignore the strengths, work on the strengths too as they are your point of difference.
How do you recreate pressure in training for young players?
You need to train with intensity and pace and you have to reduce decision making time and put skill execution under pressure by playing decision making games. That has to be interspersed with slower paced technical sessions which are developing the core skills. It’s a classic whole part whole thing, you play the game, break it down into specific skill components, and then you build the game back up and play it at a quicker pace so when you get to the real game it comes easy.
WATCH: Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster spoke to the media in Leinster HQ this afternoon. pic.twitter.com/7NSK1LDM7j
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) September 5, 2016
What qualities make a good captain and what role do you expect him to play on and off the field?
It’s not just about one player; the team is led by a group of decision makers from your captain, to the guy who runs the lineouts, to the fly half who calls the shots. It’s important to have more than one within the team and not rely on this perceived iconic captain who does everything in the game because they don’t.
Modern player are lacking some leadership qualities that players who played 10 or 15 years ago would have developed automatically by their lifestyle. The electronic age of iPads and iPhones has affected the development of leaders within younger players. Their ability to communicate is effected, their decision making isn’t the same as everything is usually handed down to them or is on an iPad or App. I think we need to spend time on developing leadership in young players and getting them to understand what leadership is.
What is the best advice you’ve been given as a coach?
“If you work hard for long enough you get what you deserve.” It doesn’t matter whether you achieve international rugby, or good premiership level, or a level that’s semi-professional, it’s about being the best you can be. Then you can look yourself in the mirror and say yes I achieved that and look back with no regrets.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com