England's recent rugby history has been about as harmonious as Ancient Rome in the reign of Caligula, but when the great and good of Twickenham came to appointing a new head coach to guide the national side through to the home World Cup in 2015, there could not have been more of a consensus. Stuart Lancaster's appointment was unanimously supported, not only by the five men who interviewed him, but also by the management board which endorsed their choice.
The Cumbrian's performance during an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, application process was very nearly as assured as his negotiation of the Six Nations Championship – his first exposure to coaching at full international level, following a decade-long apprenticeship with age-group, club and England Saxons teams. "It was our task to find the best man for the job," said Ian Ritchie, the recently arrived chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, "and it was the view of all those whose opinions we sought that Stuart was the best candidate. Nationality was irrelevant, but when you reach the stage of finding that the best candidate is also English, that's an added bonus."
Lancaster's principal opposition was South African, in the formidable shape of Nick Mallett – a coach far more acquainted with the minefields and mantraps strewn across the bitterly contested landscape of Test rugby, having coached the Springboks to a record-breaking run of victories in the late 1990s and presided over the Italian campaign at last year's World Cup in New Zealand. No one in his right mind would have expected the former Leeds flanker to stare down a challenger of Mallett's stature when the job first became vacant before Christmas, but the events of the last three months have turned the English game on its head.
"After the Ireland game a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't sure I'd be sitting here in this position," Lancaster confessed yesterday during the formal confirmation of his rise to the top job in red-rose rugby. "Now, it's a matter of finding the words to describe how I feel. Two words spring to mind: honour and privilege. I'm also aware of the huge responsibility I carry. But this is not about me: it's about the connection between the England team and the English sporting public. What do I want to see? Three things. I want us to play with pride; I want us all to buy into the vision of winning the next World Cup; and I want to build a team who play without fear."
Neither Lancaster nor Ritchie could offer any update on the precise nature of the extended coaching team, although the rugby world and his maiden aunt knows that Lancaster wants to retain the Six Nations caretaker unit of Graham Rowntree, the forwards specialist, and Andy Farrell, who ran the backs and organised the defensive system. Rowntree has already declared his willingness – indeed, his desperation – to stay on, and as he is already on the RFU payroll, there are no obstacles to his continued involvement. Farrell, contracted to Saracens for another two years, is in a more complicated place, although there is little chance of the Premiership champions standing in his way if he wants to throw in his lot with England.
"It's a classic 'one step at a time' situation," Ritchie said. "These things will be done in due course, in the proper way. We haven't made any approach to Saracens as yet. How could we have done, until we knew for sure who the head coach would be?"
Mallett, generally considered to be one of rugby's most authoritative figures, was interviewed last week by Ritchie and his four advisors: the Bath director of rugby Sir Ian McGeechan, his Harlequins counterpart Conor O'Shea, the World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill and the RFU's professional rugby director Rob Andrew. He would have given an extremely good account of himself, as he always does. But it was Mallett who, after the 30-point demolition of Ireland at Twickenham 13 days ago, said the RFU would be "very brave" to appoint anyone other than Lancaster. When the Hertfordshire-born South African flew back to Cape Town a week ago, he pretty much knew the score.
Ironically enough, Lancaster's initial challenge as full-time coach will be to plot a route through the Springbok badlands in June. England are scheduled to play Tests in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, plus midweek games in Kimberley and Bloemfontein. Those who expected Lancaster's side to win one game in five in the Six Nations are likely to make a similar prediction when the squad fly south at the end of May. "It's a huge challenge," Lancaster acknowledged. "But we'll be undertaking a forensic analysis of the Springboks and while I'm not naive enough to predict five wins from five games, I'm very optimistic that we'll be competitive. Time is against us, as it was ahead of the Six Nations, but we'll show the same commitment and structural organisation we showed in that tournament, as a bare minimum."
He may be short of international experience, but he is not short of confidence. It is the quiet confidence of a man from the farmlands of the Lake District, but no less impressive for that. As Ritchie told his audience yesterday: "A gamble? I don't see this as a gamble."
Stuart Lancaster's results so far:
4 Feb Scotland (a) Won 13-6
11 Feb Italy (a) Won 19-15
25 Feb Wales (h) Lost 12-19
11 Mar France (a) Won 24-22
17 Mar Ireland (h) Won 30-9
Upcoming England fixtures:
27 May Barbarians (h)
9 June South Africa (Durban)
16 June South Africa (Jo'burg)
23 June South Africa (P Elizabeth)
10 Nov Fiji (h)
17 Nov Australia (h)
24 Nov South Africa (h)
1 Dec New Zealand (h)
2013 Six Nations:
2 Feb Scotland (h), 10 Feb Ireland (a), 23 Feb France (h), 10 Mar Italy (h), 16 Mar Wales (a).
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