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

1 Reconnection

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.

 

2 Communication

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.

 

3 Selection

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.

 

4 Collaboration

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.

 

5 Discretion

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?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee