Dan Lancaster prepares to pass during England Under-20's 24-15 win over Ireland
Credit: Getty Images Europe
Forging your way in rugby union as the son of a professional coach, particularly one as dedicated and diligent as Stuart Lancaster, certainly has its perks.
After every match he plays, Dan Lancaster receives a recording edited to include his father’s commentary. Stuart will assess significant and subtle moments, posing questions and offering gentle suggestions.
“It is similar to what he would do at Leinster,” explains Dan, on course for a Six Nations Grand Slam with England Under-20.
“He will download the game, screen record it and speak over it. It’s pretty detailed. He’ll be asking ‘what are you thinking here?’ or saying ‘there is an opportunity here’.
“I pride myself on working hard off the ball, so he might say: ‘If you could work hard earlier here then this space might be on’.
“They are little things, and bits that will help the team as well. He gets a good balance between pointing out things that are good and areas where I could have worked harder.”
Lancaster senior ahead of a Rainbow Cup match between Leinster and Munster last season
Lancaster junior pauses briefly. “It’s obviously really helpful,” he adds. “And I’m obviously going to listen to him, aren’t I?! He knows a lot about rugby.”
Stuart, the ex-England head coach enjoying a trophy-laden spell in Ireland with Leinster, is sincere and generous with his insight regardless of family ties.
Betraying his former life in teaching, the 51-year-old seems to permanently exude an eagerness to enhance the understanding of anyone that shows interest in rugby, from players and fellow coaches to supporters and journalists.
He and Dan will occasionally chat about what Leinster fly-halves – Johnny Sexton and the Byrne brothers, Ross and Harry – are doing well. Through his dad, Dan has met influential figures. There is a video somewhere of him kicking with Owen Farrell as an 11-year-old: “I was about 10 metres out and in front of the posts,” Dan laughs. More recently, he shared an “invaluable” conversation with British and Irish Lions centre Robbie Henshaw.
All of this appears to be serving him well. Lancaster has started at inside centre for all of England’s fixtures at the Under-20 Six Nations, which has been held in Cardiff over the past four weeks.
Behind a powerful pack, his neat distribution and marshalling of midfield have aided victories over France, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. A win against Italy on Tuesday afternoon, not guaranteed given the Azzurri thrashed Scotland 43-3, would complete the clean sweep.
Players have kept themselves amused off the field. Lancaster teamed up with Gloucester flanker Freddie Thomas for a FIFA showdown against two of their Italy counterparts, Mattia Ferrarin and Tommaso di Bartolomeo, last week. In a happy omen, England prevailed 3-0.
🏴 ENGLAND V ITALY 🇮🇹 (On FIFA)
Ahead of the #Euro2020Final our U20s took on @Federugby U20s on FIFA 🏆
Let's hope for the same result tonight 😉 pic.twitter.com/Xysx0Ccpbw
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 11, 2021
Lancaster also happens to be one of just two players in Alan Dickens’ squad not to be affiliated to a Premiership club. Although he trained with Exeter Chiefs recently, the aim is to complete his degree in sports coaching – the apple has not fallen far from the tree – at Leeds Beckett University next year.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lancaster split his time between a difficult Championship campaign for Yorkshire Carnegie, who were relegated to the National Leagues where they will compete under their old name as Leeds Tykes, and the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) competition. The progress of Harlequins back-rower Alex Dombrandt, who has surged from Cardiff Metropolitan University to an England cap via a Premiership title, is an inspiration in that regard.
“There’s no doubt that if Leeds were a Premiership academy, I probably would have taken that route,” says Lancaster. “But I’ve also had the best of both worlds playing on Wednesdays in BUCS, which was a lot, lot faster and not as physical with high ball-in-play time, and then for Yorkshire on a Saturday or Sunday where there was less speed.
“That was more physical than BUCS, so I think I got a good balance. In the Championship, I was on the back foot and we were losing, but I think I learned a lot.”
Dan with his parents, Nina and Stuart, and the Champions Cup in 2018
Credit: Getty Images Europe
Already, the youngster has exhibited resilience. Unselected by England Under-18 in 2018, he responded by making himself available to Scotland Under-18 – for whom he qualifies via his father’s heritage – and kicking his team to a 32-27 triumph in an age-group meeting of auld enemies.
Lancaster admits that he “had a point to prove” and the triumph “meant a lot”. It brought “one of the best feelings I have had”, not least because it happened on the same day as a 30-19 win for his father’s Leinster over Saracens in a European quarter-final.
Stuart lifted the Champions Cup that season, which must have felt cathartic for the whole Lancaster clan given what had happened three years previously. England’s gut-wrenching failure at the 2015 World Cup has shaped Dan as well as his dad. In the aftermath of that tournament, then just 14, he became the target of sledging during games.
“It was tough at the time because I didn’t really know how to handle it,” Lancaster remembers. “I probably reacted on the pitch differently to what I would now.
“It’s definitely helped me because now I know when people mean well and when they are making a sly dig. I’m more understanding of everything.”
“When people were saying stuff, I got pretty confrontational,” he adds. “After that it would be pretty deflating because you’ve done something out of emotion and let your side down. It’s just a learning curve.”
Citing the scepticism over Gareth Southgate that lingers despite England’s success at Euro 2020, Lancaster suggests that a degree of flak must be expected by sporting figureheads. If and when he goes into coaching himself, he will be prepared.
“I’d like to think I have experienced a lot of the emotions indirectly; the highs being when my dad coached the double for Leinster [in 2018] but also the All Blacks game [when England beat New Zealand 38-21 in 2012] and the lows of the World Cup and how that felt after.
“I think I’ve gone through one of the highest highs and one of the lowest lows indirectly. You are obviously disappointed in the moment but time is a healer and I have moved on. I’m still here and I definitely think there are a lot more highs and a lot more lows to come.”
Stuart is sure to be on hand for his son through those highs and lows, whenever and however they may arrive.
“I think he does it because he loves rugby,” Dan says of his father’s rare enthusiasm for educating and supporting people. "He wants to help his kid out, but he wants to help everyone out.”