Red rose rising: Lancaster's five steps to victory in France
England's interim head coach is closer than ever to a full-time appointment, writes Chris Hewett, after putting right the wrongs of the Johnson years – on and off the field
A few minutes after the Six Nations victory in Paris that lifted England back into the top four of the world rankings, Stuart Lancaster's coaching colleagues, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree, talked of the importance of restoring pride in the red-rose jersey. This was not meant merely from the players' perspective but also from that of a rugby public profoundly disenchanted with the joyless, unimaginative, pedestrian fare produced by a squad ultimately torn asunder by behavioural excess born of rampant arrogance that was tolerated, if not actively encouraged, by those at the top. It was the first item on Lancaster's agenda when he succeeded the departed manager Martin Johnson on an interim basis – his first article of faith.
To that end, he decided against taking an expensive flight to Portugal for a spot of warmish-weather training and set up camp at a level-eight club on the chill outskirts of Leeds instead. This, he believed, would serve two purposes: firstly, it would remind the players that the grass-roots game from which they emerged still mattered – that it had not disappeared into the ether the moment they left it behind. Secondly, it would provide him with an honest-to-goodness environment in keeping with the down-to-earth gospel he intended to preach. Calls for discipline, sacrifice and rigour are never less persuasive than when made over champagne and canapes.
In the early weeks and months of the Johnson regime the captain, Steve Borthwick, felt isolated. The England management supported him in public but left him hanging in private. Lancaster chose a different, more inclusive approach to man-management: he decided to keep the principal contenders for the captaincy – Chris Robshaw of Harlequins; the Northampton forwards Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood; the Leicester flanker Tom Croft – fully in the loop, including them in a "senior players group" and telling them he would make a decision after assessing their contributions on and off the field over the course of the Yorkshire camp. When Robshaw was given the nod he was told, openly and publicly, that his position would be reviewed after two games. It was good psychology: against both Scotland and Italy, he carried the ball further, and made more tackles, than anyone else in the team.
Some things, like good news, are easier to communicate than others. Lancaster has not sidestepped the bad-news chores. His decision to jettison Danny Care for the duration of the Six Nations – the scrum-half had drink-related run-ins with the police either side of Christmas – was a painful one, for he had worked closely with Care for years and had played a significant role in his development. But it was also the right one. Compare this with Johnson's weakness in the face of myriad transgressions at the World Cup.
Rather than make decisions on the basis of what players were bad at doing – the Johnson regime rejected the superior footballing talents of the Gloucester No 8 Luke Narraway on the grounds that he was not as good going backwards as he was going forwards, and discarded the game-breaking abilities of the centre Mathew Tait because he was unlikely to smash an opponent as substantial as the Frenchman Mathieu Bastareaud – Lancaster understood that the challenge of building a side "both for the future and for now" could only be met positively. He dealt with the negatives early by shedding players he felt had little or no chance of reaching the 2015 World Cup and then backed his judgement by promoting individuals who had impressed him, as players and as characters, at second-string Saxons level: Brad Barritt, Lee Dickson and Phil Dowson were among them.
He also fast-tracked the untried, untested and – until recently – majestically unfit Ben Morgan into his back-row equation, giving the No 8 two runs as a substitute before letting him loose from the get-go. Still on the subject of replacements, he was bold enough to throw a fistful of uncapped players into the latter stages of a bitterly fought Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. "There's no point picking them if you don't trust them," he said, when asked if he had been brave, reckless or both.
If Lancaster is indeed first among back-room equals – and he has shown not the slightest indication that he considers himself to be such – the emphasis is very much on the e-word rather than the f-word. Thanks to Farrell and Rowntree, whose generosity of spirit has earned them the abiding respect of the squad, the head coach has been able to cover an enormous amount of ground unfeasibly quickly. To lose, voluntarily or otherwise, a fistful of hardened internationals who knew what it was to play in Grand Slam and World Cup final sides and still find a way, in less than two months, of building a side capable
of winning three difficult Six Nations games away from home ... all things considered, we are in minor-miracle territory.
Lancaster says Farrell gives the trio "presence" while Rowntree provides "credibility", and if he sometimes slips into sports psycho-babble – he is an avid consumer of the vast library of "how to" works spewed out by generations of successful baseball and gridiron coaches – his colleagues speak plain English, complete with nouns, verbs and regular full stops. Together, the three of them have covered acres of ground, both theoretical and practical.
Talk about bucking the trend. Tub-thumping pronouncements, grand remonstrances, rumours, leaks, Chinese whispers, strategic betrayals of confidences ... none of these can be laid at the door of Lancaster, who, having witnessed at close hand the havoc wreaked by all of the above in recent seasons, felt it was high time Twickenham Man learnt to button his lip. Repeatedly asked, sometimes as frequently as every two minutes, about his candidacy for the full-time head coach position, he has politely declined to comment, citing an unwillingness to compromise the integrity of the process. Integrity? At the RFU? A process? At the RFU?
Crikey. Who'd have thought it?
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