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Nick Westby: Former England RU chief Stuart Lancaster emerges from the shadows

Family affair: Stuart Lancaster, the Leinster senior coach, celebrates with his wife Nina and son Daniel. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Family affair: Stuart Lancaster, the Leinster senior coach, celebrates with his wife Nina and son Daniel. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
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A QUIET redemption occurred in Bilbao last weekend.

Not a bombastic, shouting from the rooftops, finger in the face.

No arrogant press conference to proclaim a point had been proven, that critics had been silenced. There was no serving up of humble pie.

Even in front of the detractors, those who had sharpened their knives and dug them deep between the shoulder blades, there was no gloating.

Instead, it was just an accomplishment enjoyed with an enormous sense of satisfaction and pride, shared with family and friends – those who never lost faith.

Stuart Lancaster’s vindication as the Leinster side he coaches were crowned European champions with a defeat of Racing ’92 in club rugby’s biggest showpiece was a triumph for character and resolve.

Stuart Lancaster, the Leinster senior coach, celebrates the team's European Champions Cup final win in Bilbao, Spain. (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Stuart Lancaster, the Leinster senior coach, celebrates the team's European Champions Cup final win in Bilbao, Spain. (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)

It was also one to hearten anyone who had come to know him during his time with Leeds Carnegie and then with England.

It is that latter spell which ended with a bitter taste three years ago that could have scarred a decent man for good.

Lancaster had been the unassuming caretaker who asked the Rugby Football Union to give him a chance in the early winter of 2011 in the aftermath of England’s dismal World Cup campaign in New Zealand.

A little under four years later he was the man made the scapegoat for a far more chastening and embarrassing exit when England – the most financially well-backed union hosting their home World Cup – were ousted from ‘their’ tournament even before the real matter of knockout rugby had begun.

While Lancaster shunned the spotlight, the words of others betrayed how highly thought of he is and how great his influence has been on the success of the Dublin side.

Nick Westby

In between times, there was a lot of good done – a changing of England’s laddish culture, a reintegrating of the national team outside of Twickenham, and a restoration of pride in the shirt – that went largely ignored under the weight of a few damaging results.

Lancaster’s reign, however progressive beforehand, was overlooked on the grounds of one defeat to Wales in a pool game that could have gone either way and a one-sided loss to an Australia side who had peaked at the right time.

The inquest into England’s failure was well-documented and barely any of it reflected well on Lancaster.

Plenty of people turned on him but, instead of biting back, Lancaster largely kept his thoughts to himself as he made a dignified retreat into the shadows.

There it appeared a promising career built on tireless research, a willingness to learn as much as he could and a calm and easy manner with the younger generation of rugby players, would reside for ever.

Until, that is, Leinster, the three-time champions of Europe, bucked the narrative and gave the former Leeds academy director a career lifeline as their senior coach.

Now, two years on, the former schoolteacher from Cumbria has proven he is far from damaged goods.

Granted, his tenure as England coach had to come to an end, the World Cup humiliation was too costly on so many levels.

The success Eddie Jones has enjoyed, at least initially, shows the international job came too soon for him and is the size of challenge only a select few can handle. But it was not all Lancaster.

The very few elements of bad that are always magnified in these situations, should not have outweighed the many good elements.

In the Basque region of Spain last Saturday, while Lancaster shunned the spotlight, the words of others betrayed how highly thought of he is and how great his influence has been on the success of the Dublin side.

“What a special coach to come in and do what he’s done,” were the words of Jonny Sexton, Leinster and Ireland’s world-class fly-half.

“He did an unbelievable job with England. That gets overlooked by one result; a result in the World Cup that could have gone either way against Wales.

“However, things turn out for a reason and we might not be European champions today if England didn’t lose that game.”

Lancaster may not have succeeded in rebuilding the England rugby team as he had hoped, but he has quietly, and with great integrity, rebuilt his own reputation.