Lancaster sidesteps coaching issue with class and humour
England caretaker tries to put focus on Ireland match despite the uncertainty of his future
Stuart Lancaster left the England team hotel late on Tuesday afternoon, drove north up the motorway for a good three hours, spent the night at his home in Leeds, took the kids to school the following morning and drove all the way back again to continue preparations for the Six Nations match against Ireland. "It was the first time I'd been outside the 'bubble' for a while and the first I'd heard of some of the things being said," the caretaker coach said yesterday. "It's nice to have the praise, but it's really not about me."
Lancaster has not been wrong about much in the three months since agreeing to run the show but in terms of public perception, he was spectacularly wrong on this occasion. Victory at Twickenham tomorrow will do far more than guarantee England a high championship finish and protect their position in the top four of the world rankings. It will also add a fresh and perhaps irresistible wave of support to his candidacy for the full-time coaching role, just as a five-man Rugby Football Union panel gather for their final deliberations.
Once again, Lancaster was bombarded with questions he could not answer; once again, he responded good-humouredly while saying double naff-all squared. "This is a fantastic job," he said. "Ask any coach in any sport in the world and they'll all say that working with their national team is the dream job, and I want to speak next week about where England rugby was, where it is now and where it can go. But no one knows at the moment how this is going to play out."
Even when pressed on whether, if asked to continue his good work on a more long-term basis, he would fight to keep the services of his assistant Andy Farrell, he showed nimble footwork unbecoming of the back-row forward he once was. "I'm not surprised Saracens want Andy back," he said, referring to the Premiership champions' declaration that Farrell is under contract and very much their man.
"The first conversation, if it arises, will be between the two of us, but we haven't spoken yet because neither of us has any idea what will happen over the next two, three, four weeks. I have my views, though, and it will be up to me to present them to the interview panel." Then, after a mischievous pause, he added: "If I haven't done so already." Clever.
As expected, the Saracens wing David Strettle will be back in the line-up tomorrow, having missed last weekend's three-try win over France in Paris with a bruised sternum. There is also a place on the bench for the Lions Test hooker Lee Mears, thanks to Rob Webber's shoulder problems. The two front-rowers will be scrapping with each other every week when Webber joins Mears at Bath next season.
With a good deal of focus being centred on Wales and their Grand Slam match with France in Cardiff, the build-up to the England-Ireland business has been slightly less combustible than usual, although Stephen Ferris, the Ulster flanker, did his best to warm things up by using the word "arrogant" in connection with the home team. Lancaster's response to that was considerably more expansive than anything he said on the subject of his future employment prospects.
"I'd be very disappointed if, at the end of this Six Nations, the England side were labelled 'arrogant'," he remarked. "The players are focused and determined, they're proud to be playing for their country and they're developing as a team. We recognise people on the outside have their opinions, but as far as I'm concerned it's back to the old mantra about believing what's inside the team room rather than listening to those on the outside.
"As a coach, I'm always looking for signs of complacency, just as I look for signs of under-confidence. You want to hit that middle ground between confidence and fear of failure – to gauge the mindset in the group and if necessary take action to get them in the right place. I haven't had to do that in this tournament because the spirit has been right. The more you fuel that spirit, the more it grows and the more powerful it becomes, so it's been my job to add in all the little things at the right time."
If England are to win tomorrow, those little things will have to become big things. They have lost seven of their last eight championship games against the Irish and if some of the defeats have been horrible – the 43-13 trauma at Croke Park in 2007 was one of the recent red-rose low points – the sole victory, a 33-10 canter at Twickenham in 2008, was not much fun either, signalling as it did the removal of Brian Ashton as head coach and the muddle-headed establishment of the Martin Johnson regime.
"Ireland do not just have good players, they're clearly very well coached," said Lancaster, who could conceivably win every bit as handsomely tomorrow yet find himself similarly rejected, perish the thought. "It's also true to say that they do certain very specific things differently to any other side in the competition. But as usual, we'll concentrate mostly on our own game. The moment you use the things the opposition might do as your main driver... well, that's not right, in my opinion."
In recent times, England have made precisely that mistake and paid through the nose for their folly. No one, least of all Lancaster, believes this final tournament match will be anything less than extremely tough, but it is a sign of the team's improvement over the course of the championship that everyone considers it to be winnable.
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