Praise be! The RFU go for a man who is an actual coach

Determined Cumbrian was seen as an outsider for job but he has long been developing his teaching credentials

The first point to be made about the new England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, is that he is... a coach. Now, there's a novelty. Almost precisely four years ago, the Rugby Football Union sacked Brian Ashton – perhaps the finest coach in Europe; indisputably a coach who had just guided the national team to a World Cup final, closely followed by a runners-up finish in the Six Nations – and, in its infinite wisdom, replaced him with an individual who had no experience of running a whelk stall, let alone a professional sporting set-up. It was not so much a high-risk strategy as a simple-minded, wholly illogical affront to common sense.

If Martin Johnson, a great international player and captain embarrassingly miscast as a manager largely on the whim of the discredited former RFU chairman Martyn Thomas, produced over the course of his grim-faced and joyless tenure a side who would duly perform like whelks in New Zealand when supposedly fighting for the Webb Ellis Cup, it could hardly be described as progress. Progress is what has happened since Christmas, not what happened before it.

Lancaster, a 42-year-old Cumbrian from farming stock who makes great play of his son-of-the-soil approach to life, was appointed caretaker coach in December following Johnson's decision to cut his losses, head for the hills – or, in his case, the Leicestershire countryside – and spend some quality time figuring out what the hell and why. In the space of a few short weeks, the newcomer managed to reintroduce some rather important elements to the red-rose set-up: a much-needed air of discipline, a culture of mutual support and respect, the art of two-way communication and, last but by no means least, a sense of fun. Those who describe his contribution as "transformative" are not overstating the case.

Exactly how he achieved what he did over the course of the Six Nations just finished is not the stuff of mystery: he spent a decade learning how to do it. His eight years as a flanker in the Leeds back row may not have marked him out as a rugby genius – in terms of playing success, his career was several light years distant from the stellar version enjoyed by his predecessor – but he decided early that he would travel infinitely further as a coach. In 2001, he took over the management of the Leeds academy and turned it into one of the most productive in the land. He also set about making his painstaking way towards securing Level Five coaching status. As there was no Level Six, there was nothing else to learn. All he could do now was crack on with it.

By 2007, he was on the RFU payroll as head of elite player development – a job that also carried the responsibility of coaching the second-string England Saxons. The Saxons have been widely dismissed as a soft touch: a side principally concerned, until last summer, with playing Churchill Cup rugby against North American opposition that was not terribly good. As a high-profile Premiership director of rugby was heard to say as recently as a fortnight ago: "My gran could have coached the Saxons." Whether that gentleman's grandmother would have used her Saxons experience as the central plank in a personal philosophy of high-level coaching, as Lancaster did, is a moot point.

"There was a whole range of people there who needed dealing with in very specific ways," Lancaster said a few days ago, recalling this hothouse period of man-management instruction. "There were players who had come down from the Test team and were desperate to find their way back up again; there were people who had been on the edges of the international set-up for a long time and were looking for a way of taking the next step; there were young players who had come out of the age groups, played some Premiership rugby and were in a hurry to win a first cap. Those were three very different situations. And I was asking all of those involved, tired as they were after a long season of club rugby, to spend June playing against the United States in some far-flung place or other when all their friends and rivals were disappearing on holiday."

Out of that "process" – Lancaster's frequent word of choice – came a deep knowledge of a generation of fringe players, from relatively old hands such as Phil Dowson and Lee Dickson to bright young things like Billy Twelvetrees and Charlie Sharples. The World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White, who secured the title in 2007 and was an early candidate for the job Lancaster has just landed, trod a similar path. When White coached the Junior Boks with great success in 2002, he worked closely with a handful of players, including the brilliant scrum-half Fourie du Preez and the equally influential flanker Juan Smith, who would be central to the campaign five years later. If history repeats itself in England's favour, anything will be possible come the home World Cup in 2015.

For all Lancaster's "honest to goodness" approach – the former England and Lions wing John Bentley, who worked alongside him at Leeds, credits his fellow northerner's grasp of "sport's fundamentals" and his recognition that "it's not the game that owes the players something; it's the other way round" – he is more ambitious than he lets on. When he made his first job application to a school in Morecambe, which was advertising for a head of department, he had not even qualified as a teacher. When, at the height of last year's RFU committee-room civil war, sparked by Thomas' brazen attempts to install Sir Clive Woodward as Twickenham's performance director, Lancaster was bold enough to express an interest in the role himself.

His favourite phrase – "the result will take care of itself" – stems from his unshakeable belief in the primacy of hard work and attention to detail. Asked yesterday if he had felt overawed during a Six Nations in which he found himself pitting his wits against such well-regarded tacticians as Warren Gatland of Wales and Philippe Saint-André of France, he indicated that he had been far more concerned with the mindset of his own players than in getting inside the minds of his direct opponents.

"Of course, there's an element of competition with rival coaching teams in terms of strategy and game management," he said. "You look, for instance, at their defensive systems, and try to work out how they are looking at your own defensive system. That's part of the dynamic of international coaching. But there's another part, concerned with your own players and the building up of their self-belief." There was little doubt as to what he considered the more important aspect of the two.

Some observers do not much like the fact that England now have a head coach of the low-profile, under-the-radar variety. Believers in the "great man" theory of history, they would have much preferred someone constructed on a larger-than-life scale, like the defeated candidate, Nick Mallett. Should Lancaster's side go down heavily in South Africa this summer, they will reach for this stick and beat him with it. How they will react when he fails to bat an eyelid, let alone shows a sign of pain, remains to be seen.

Highs and lows: England's coaching record

Mike Davis

November 1979-March 1982

P16/W10/D2/L4/Win% 62.5

Trophies Five Nations, 1980

Dick Greenwood

January 1983-April 1985

P17/W4/D2/L11 /Win% 23.5

Martin Green

June 1985-June 1987

P14/W5/D0/L9/Win% 35.7

Geoff Cooke

January 1988-March 1994

P50/W36/D1/L13/Win% 72.0

Trophies Five Nations, 1991 & 1992

Jack Rowell

June 1994-July 1997

P29/W21/D0/L8/Win% 72.4

Trophies Five Nations, 1995 & 1996

Clive Woodward

November 1997-September 2004

P83/W59/D2/L 22/Win% 71.1

Trophies World Cup 2003, Six Nations 2000, 2001 & 2003

Andy Robinson

October 2004-November 2006

P22/W9/D0/L13/Win% 40.9

Brian Ashton

December 2006-June 2008

P22/W12/D0/L10/Win% 54.5

Rob Andrew

June 2008

P2/W0/D0/L2/Win% 0.0

Martin Johnson

July 2008-November 2011

P38/W21/D1/L16/Win% 55.26

Trophies Six Nations, 2011

Stuart Lancaster

December 2011-present

P5/W4/D0/L1/Win% 80

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
The dress can be seen in different colours
Wes Brown is sent-off
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?