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
November 1979-March 1982
Trophies Five Nations, 1980
January 1983-April 1985
P17/W4/D2/L11 /Win% 23.5
June 1985-June 1987
January 1988-March 1994
Trophies Five Nations, 1991 & 1992
June 1994-July 1997
Trophies Five Nations, 1995 & 1996
November 1997-September 2004
P83/W59/D2/L 22/Win% 71.1
Trophies World Cup 2003, Six Nations 2000, 2001 & 2003
October 2004-November 2006
December 2006-June 2008
July 2008-November 2011
Trophies Six Nations, 2011
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