It was the pain behind Stuart Lancaster’s eyes as much as his simply stated admission which created the sadness:the most enormous sense of sadness. His gaze was fixed on a point at the back of the room when he said yesterday morning that this would live with him all his days – “I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with it” – and you felt little less than grief, in that moment, that the qualities of decency, honesty and humility had been washed up amid the wreckage of England’s World Cup elimination.
There are a number dotted around the ranks of professional life who will nod in recognition at his sentiment. Lancaster rejected the predilection among those at the top of sport, where egos walk, to dissemble, deny and spin a line when everything has been reduced to nothing.
To observe him talk and then consider the latest preening self-absorption of Jose Mourinho, confiding to Sky Sports his belief in a referees’ conspiracy and telling the man who pays him £12.5m a year to sack him if he dares, was to venture to a pitiful opposite scale. And in his articulation of the enormity of all this, you saw most vividly that Lancaster will surely not be leading England on when the review of what has befallen his team is completed.
The private agonies will begin to recede in time. No moment will eviscerate him quite like the one, in the Twickenham press room late on Saturday night, when he was asked to pronounce his hopes for a successful ongoing World Cup without England in its ranks. But how might he begin preparing for the long road to Japan, four years from now, when these seven short days in London have claimed a part of him?
It is often what a coach or a player does not say which reveals most. Lancaster did not look like a man who is fighting to go on, demanding to see things out like the self-assured Clive Woodward did after England failed in 1999.
The cold, hard truth is that something brutal and ruthless is the requirement when the preparations are done and you walk the white heat of a World Cup tournament.
Lancaster, fastidious to the last, was carrying his big black A4 diary around with him as ever yesterday – “Collins Mid-term 2015/16” – and when he was reminded of Woodward’s early failure he briefly seemed to brighten, around the thought of spending the next few weeks thinking “whether there were any players out there who could’ve been here, those with more experience who could’ve added value to the team.”
He had already attended a meeting of his management team and watched back the game even before he sat down to talk yesterday. It was pointless. All hope had gone. Rigour can only take you so far.
The details of his tactical conservatism as this tournament arrived have been sieved. When it all came down to it on Saturday, the supreme central talent of Jonathan Joseph was cast out on the wing and God only knows why.
But you can also imagine how an Alex Ferguson – or a Mourinho – would have responded had you told them that the best openside flanker available to them had rendered himself ineligible by playing in Toulon. Put themselves on the next plane there, to meet Steffon Armitage and, once there, to cajole, flatter and romance him into moving back to England.
The hopes of an Armitage move to Bath became cast adrift on a sea of financial technicalities, leaving England bereft of the openside force with which Australia cut them apart on Saturday.
Lancaster’s explanation revealed there had been a waiting and hoping but no wizardry from him. “You very much sit in the background as these things unfold or not. There is no magic wand I could wave to bring any French-based player back to England and the policy remains in place,” he said.
It is hard to pass over the words of Ferguson in his new book of reflections on management: “A big part of running a successful organisation is convincing people to join you.”
Those football men would also have had dismissed in cold blood those who were not good enough: Chris Robshaw, Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess. Ferguson’s obsession with detecting the players who had begun to outlive their usefulness and “melt” surpassed all others. There would be blood on the carpet. There is something of the night about the leaders who win.
Lancaster provided hints of the ones who he feels have suffered the collateral damage of all this. “Family is a big thing,” he observed, when asked which factors would weigh most as he decides where he wants his future to lie. The decision is not his but lies with the men in the RFU blue suits and standard issue red tie, such as his boss Ian Ritchie, sitting to his left yesterday and referring euphemistically to Saturday as “the thing yesterday”.
Lancaster endured the excruciating experience of hearing Ritchie publicly discuss his employment prospects. He chuckled at the suggestion of an RFU role which is not head coach, though this seems the Union’s best way out of the hole it dug itself by handing him a six-year contract before this World Cup.
A role running the Saxons side would seem to be a fit. The Leeds club, where so many young players flourished on his watch, will tell you he would thrive. Many of this young England squad were “playing for England Under-18s, just finishing their A-levels,” when he began, he reminded us. “And now they’ve just been in a World Cup.”
But you wonder if Lancaster could face watching from close quarters as someone else – Eddie Jones, Woodward, Nick Mallett – inherits what he started and breathes the fresh air of hope that was once his.
Some would take the money and the desk and settle back, but Lancaster may not be able to live with that. “At the end of the day, I’m the head coach and we didn’t get out of the pool,” he said, for a second time. “It’s stating the obvious but it’s going to sit with us all forever.”Reuse content