Old Leeds coach had work cut out from day one

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Thoughts of an historic Six Nations grand slam were the furthest thing from the mind of Stuart Lancaster when he took charge of Leeds Carnegie in the early summer of 2006.

The only thing he could contemplate was how on earth he would turn around Leeds Tykes.

The Yorkshire club that he had served with distinction, as a captain and a rare member of the 100- appearances club, had just been relegated from the Premiership and were shorn of confidence.

Worse still, the playing staff had been decimated.

When he arrived at the club’s Kirkstall training base on his first day as the club’s director of rugby in the middle of May, there were just seven senior players on Leeds’s books; Stuart Hooper, Rob Rawlinson, Lee Blackett, Tom Biggs, Rob Vickerman, Michael Cusack and Joe Dunbar.

Lancaster, 36, barely had half a team. But over the weeks and months he rebuilt Leeds, and any thoughts of the team being in a state of flux – an excuse he could have used given the nature of the club he inherited – were rendered nonsensical as Leeds lost just four games en route to a return to the Premiership at the first time of asking.

“We kind of came together after the club had got relegated and it was hard to believe there were just seven of us players,” said Hooper, who was Lancaster’s first captain.

“I knew Stuart from his time in the academy and he warmed to the task straight away.

“Pretty much from the minute I started working with him I thought he’d be a success.

“He had the drive and the determination and he worked fantastically hard.”

For the man who appointed him as Leeds’s figurehead, there was no doubt that the club’s academy manager would make the seamless transition to the top job.

“When he took over here we were in some turmoil,” said the club’s chief executive Gary Hetherington.

“Some thought we needed a really experienced coach, but in Stuart we had a man who had been in the club for a long time as a player and who had done an excellent job with the academy.

“We needed a change of policy, and he turned things around very quickly. He is very professional and structured, and he quickly put everything in place, instilling a new culture and a lot of confidence.”

Lancaster had got Leeds upwardly mobile again, with a culture shift and a more professional working environment two of the hallmarks of his early days that resonate today, now that he occupies the top office in English rugby.

Yet it was not all plain sailing for Lancaster at Leeds.

The club were relegated in their first season back in the top flight, and Lancaster was heading out of the exit door – of his own volition – to a job at the Rugby Football Union.

The pathway to the England hotseat had begun, out of the gaze of pretty much everyone else in the rugby world.

And even though his spell at Leeds had not been an unequivocal success, Lancaster left lasting impressions.

Hooper, who also left that summer to begin a career with Bath that continues today, saw enough from Lancaster in two years of triumph and despair to leave him certain his former coach would pop up again sometime in the near future – and be a success.

“As a player, if you see that your coach works as hard or harder than anyone else then it encourages you, and makes you determined to do well for that coach,” said Hooper, 31.

“And that’s what you got from Stuart. The qualities he showed at Leeds are the qualities he is showing now as England coach.

“He’s a very honest person and the players know exactly where they stand with him.

“He works very hard and he’s hugely talented and highly determined.

“That’s the way he lives his life. Whether it was coaching England or it was coaching Leeds, he’s the same guy.

“The thing about him is he’s like that as a person, the way he coaches is the way he is as a person.

“He’s always striving. You can win a game but play badly, and he still analyses it, because sometimes the lessons are easier when you’ve won a game.

“His character will always shine through.”

That Leeds experience is widely regarded as a valuable learning curve for Lancaster, with his old boss Hetherington describing it as “the breeding ground that gave him the experience to cope with a higher level”.

Not many thought he could handle such a position just three-and-a-half years later when his move through the ranks of the RFU was capped by being named the interim head coach following the departure of Martin Johnson.

Even after winning four games in a caretaker capacity during last season’s Six Nations, there were still some calling, externally, for a more experienced man to lead England.

But internally, with Yorkshireman Ian Ritchie in charge of the governing body, there was only one choice. And for Hooper, there was no doubt that the man to lead England into the next World Cup was Lancaster.

Hooper said: “I knew that the people conducting the selection process knew Stuart and when you know him he leaves you in no doubt about his drive and his determination and that he is the best man for the job.

“For some people, getting the England job would have been the first step and they would have been starting at the beginning.

“But Stuart already knew the system and the people and was starting in the middle of the process, a bit like he was at Leeds.

“And he’s improving the team and improving in the job.”

Lancaster’s England have been on an upward trajectory ever since, with their coming-out party that memorable destruction of world champions New Zealand on December 1.

No team is ever going to hit those heights repeatedly, but England have at least maintained the momentum gained from that glorious Twickenham afternoon and retained the winning habit.

“I’ve been impressed with England. They’ve come on,” said Hooper.

“The important thing is the transition between the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations and Stuart kept in regular contact with players and coaches and they’ve shown how much that has benefitted them, they fit straight back in.”

The next big test of Lancaster’s credentials as a coach will be how he handles the extra pressure and exposure that a positive result in Cardiff will generate today.

With a first grand slam in a decade to his name – following in the footsteps of the likes of Sir Clive Woodward in leading England to a clean sweep – Lancaster’s stock will go through the roof.

Not only will he be the England head coach, but he will also have a greater public image.

But those who know him best know that it won’t alter him, that win or lose against Wales, the celebrations and the recriminations will be measured, and the analysis of the performance and the tournament overall will be honest rather than negligent.

And that before long, Lancaster will be back at West Park Leeds in Bramhope, coaching his daughter’s team.

“Pressure as England boss comes with the territory and I’ve got no doubt he’ll be able to handle the extra pressure and exposure,” said Hooper.

“He’s got a cracking family around him with wife Nina and the girls.

“When you see him at Twickenham on a Saturday and then the next day at West Park Leeds coaching his daughter’s team, he’s not doing that to get his picture in the paper, he’s doing it because that’s what he loves.

“That’s the measure of the man and the measure of the coach.”