Lancaster: There can be no mental mistakes this time
Stuart Lancaster has spent the last few weeks defending his right to privacy when it comes to English rugby's most urgent affairs of state, but victory over the French in Paris tomorrow will amount to a public demand to be taken very seriously indeed as a candidate to lead the national team into the home World Cup in 2015.
The surprise withdrawal of Jake White, who won the Webb Ellis Cup with his native South Africa five years ago, as a contender for the position leaves the caretaker coach in a strong position. That position could be a whole lot stronger by tomorrow evening.
Much depends on his team's ability to withstand the anticipated backlash from Les Bleus, who blew their chances of a fourth Six Nations Grand Slam in 11 years by failing to beat Ireland on home soil last weekend. Most specifically, Lancaster's chances are linked to the performance of the red-rose front row against the strongest scrum in Europe. If Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole wilt at close quarters tomorrow – and the latter two have first-hand experience of such humiliation, having been substituted embarrassingly early the last time England played at Stade de France – the chances of the coach ending the competition in credit will be no better than 50-50.
"The scrum is such a big part of French rugby mentality," the coach said yesterday before heading across the water. "We talked amongst ourselves this morning about how they use the scrum to impose their will on a contest. All 15 players on the field must be aware of it, not just the three in the front row. We didn't go as well at the set piece as we would have liked in out last game against Wales. There can be no mental slip-ups this time."
As he has done since the Rugby Football Union's formal coach recruitment process began in earnest last month, Lancaster refused to discuss the issue in any detail when pressed on the potential consequences of White's decision to honour a four-year contract in Australian provincial rugby and whether he now felt he was in a two-horse race with Nick Mallett, another South African. "From the outset, I knew I was performing the role of interim coach and knew how long the interim period would last," he said. "I also knew that interviews would be taking place. I don't want to compromise the process or my own part in it by talking. It's a 'no comment', I'm afraid."
He did, however, lift the veil on his own thinking on the vexed subject of coaching experience – the area in which Mallett, who has taken both the Springboks and Italy to global tournaments, has an obvious advantage that many assume will be decisive when the big call is finally made. "International coaching is different to club coaching, definitely," Lancaster acknowledged. "At club level, you build cohesion and work on tactics over a period of time and your season unfolds over 30 matches. It's not like that at Test level.
"But I've coached the Saxons [the second-string England side] and in that environment, just like this one, you have a short period in which to build a team of people who want to play for each other and for the shirt, who will buy into a common approach. With the Saxons, I sometimes had to deal with disappointed players who were dropping down from the Test team, as well as people who were stuck at that level and others who were looking to move up. While others were off on end-of-season holidays, you wanted these players to go up to Northampton and take on the United States. Managing that situation has certainly helped me on my coaching journey."
While the RFU says it wants to appoint a new head coach before the end of the current championship, there is no cast-iron guarantee it will do any such thing. England were the last visitors to win a Six Nations game in Paris – under Brian Ashton in 2008 – and if they deliver something similar tomorrow and head towards the final round of matches with a chance of retaining their title, the waters will be muddied once more.
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