Rugby World Cup 2015: Forget Stuart Lancaster - the three who should go are Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt

The RFU would be wise to keep Lancaster on in a different role, it is time for his assistants to go

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The Independent Online

Assuming Stuart Lancaster has a lawn attached to his family home in Yorkshire, he will barely be able to see the grass for tanks when he returns from the England camp following this Saturday’s dead game with Uruguay at the City of Manchester Stadium. His enemies are legion: former players, fellow coaches and the vast majority of the  critics and pundits who witnessed the red-rose World Cup exit last weekend are pointing their guns in his direction.

Yet Lancaster has spared nothing of himself in “reconnecting the England team to English rugby”, as his second-in-command, Andy Farrell, said during the continuing post-mortem into the events of the last 10 days. He has fast-tracked bright young players into the senior Test environment, restored a sense of discipline to a team that left the last global tournament in New Zealand in something close to disgrace – “They were their own worst enemies, but only just,” as one former All Black put it – and worked all the hours God sends to give some sense of coherence to representative rugby in this country.

There are good reasons to think that if the Rugby Football Union has any sense, it will retain his services in a player development role, if not as head coach. But what of his three colleagues? How can they hope to fit in to whatever set-up the governing body puts in place for next year’s Six Nations Championship, now just four months distant?

Andy Farrell: Backs coach

Initially brought in by Lancaster as a specialist defence strategist, the rugby league maestro, who spent almost a decade and a half playing his chosen sport at the most elevated of levels, has had a wider brief as England’s backs coach in recent times. Often cast as the “bad cop”, playing next to Lancaster’s “good cop”, the characterisation has not always been accurate: when, during the World Cup warm-up game with France in Paris last month, the team turned in a first-half performance that was just about as pitiful as it gets, it was Lancaster who hit the dressing-room roof.

But generally speaking, Farrell has been the dark force in the coaching group. As one former international head coach said before the current tournament: “The thing with these blokes who come into rugby union having won everything in league is that they speak with complete authority. We hear this said of Sam Burgess [the Farrell de nos jours] and it was the same when Andy crossed codes as a player. I’ve no doubt he’s the same as a coach. They have this ‘been there and done it’ swagger, they’re tough people – league is a seriously hard game in the physical sense – and they tend to win their arguments.”

The problem arises when the league contingent try to solve union problems by looking at them through the prism of their own competitive experience in the 13-man game. Burgess, selected as an international midfielder in this tournament even though his club coaches at Bath quickly decided that his skill-set was infinitely more relevant to life in the back row of the scrum, has been supported every step of the way by Farrell: indeed, those who think it was Lancaster’s idea, and Lancaster’s alone, to include him in the 31-man squad against all rugby logic are in a minority tiny enough to be counted on the fingers of one hand, with at least two digits to spare.

Farrell spent much of Monday flatly denying that his voice had been too loud in selection – that he had somehow forced Lancaster to bend to his will. “It’s Stuart’s gig,” he said, suggesting that the head coach had occasionally outvoted his three assistants all on his own – a form of democracy previously unknown to political philosophy. But the perception, supported by comments attributed to the injured No 8 Billy Vunipola, is that the Burgess project, wildly distracting and deeply divisive as well as futile, had been Farrell’s baby.

Shortly after his first taste of coaching at Test level in the 2012 Six Nations, he informed Lancaster that he felt his career development would benefit from more time in club rugby with Saracens. He quickly changed his mind and returned to the red-rose fold. But England’s game with ball in hand at this World Cup has been a long way short of thrilling. If he stays with the national team, he should revert to running the defence while giving ground to attacking priorities. If he wants to continue as an all-round backs coach, the Premiership should be his destination, at least for a season or two.

Graham Rowntree: Forwards coach

Fast-tracked into the England coaching set-up as a so-called “scrum guru” by Brian Ashton ahead of the 2007 World Cup in France, the long-serving Leicester prop has been a red-rose back-roomer ever since. And an increasingly prominent one. Two tours of duty with the British and Irish Lions – to South Africa in 2009; to Australia four years later – enhanced his reputation and with good reason. Against the Springboks, the Lions set-piece recovered from a horrible first Test outing in Durban to dominate at close quarters for the rest of the series. Against the Wallabies, the tourists’ scrum was considered a weapon of mass destruction. It certainly caused some serious damage in Sydney when the big prize was up for grabs.

Rowntree has had full charge of all aspects of the forward operation under Lancaster, but while the England pack have had their days in the sun under his tutelage – there have been memorable performances against all three southern hemisphere superpowers as well as the full range of Six Nations opposition – things have been going pear-shaped for a while now. Try as they might, the forwards have not produced anything like a consistent supply of quick ruck ball. In addition, the line-out has fallen apart too often for comfort.

And then there is the scrum – or rather, what is left of it. In Rowntree’s greatest area of expertise, the World Cup return has been more frugal than Oliver Twist’s bowl of gruel. Outperformed by both Fiji and Australia, two nations with a well-earned reputation for set-piece pacifism, the World Cup hosts are out of their own tournament at least in part because the foundation stone of their game has crumbled to dust.

Good coaches believe Rowntree has what it takes to be a productive director of rugby at Premiership level and his next step will surely be in this direction if his current employment ends in P45 territory. At 44, he is comfortably young enough to come again at international standard, with deeper experience and a broader strategic outlook.

Mike Catt: attack skills coach

When Farrell had his funny five minutes after the 2012 Six Nations and rejected the chance of a full-time contract with England in favour of a resumption of duties at Saracens, he left a crater-sized hole in the national set-up. This unexpected development unnerved Lancaster – he subsequently described it as the most difficult point in his coaching career – and with a three-Test tour of South Africa just around the corner, he brought Catt on board.

It was a bold move, for the World Cup-winning centre was still in his coaching nappies. But he fitted in easily enough, overseeing the introduction of the centre Jonathan Joseph to the England back-line during the series against the Springboks. And when Farrell thought better of his hasty decision and headed back to Twickenham, Lancaster kept Catt on in the unusual role of “attacking skills coach”.

A number of players speak highly of Catt’s input, but the overwhelming impression is that he is a coach with only half a voice – that Farrell and Rowntree are much more vocal, and a whole lot louder, when it comes to debating the key selection decisions with the head honcho. 

However, suggestions that Catt became so disenchanted during one meeting that he stomped out in a blind fury and indicated that he would not be returning in a hurry have been flatly denied, not least by the man himself.

Before the unexpected summons from Lancaster, the former Bath and London Irish midfielder had been planning to take time out from the English game and head for foreign shores in search of exposure to new coaching ideas. He is unlikely to do that now. If, as many expect, his current employers at the RFU decide to reach for a new broom and sweep the coaching floor clean, he will not be short of job offers from leading clubs – not only in England and the Celtic lands, but also in France.

He would benefit from the day-to-day demands of the club regime. With hand on heart, he could not say that England’s attacking game – a game he sparked into life so often as a player, not least during a perilous point in the triumphant 2003 World Cup campaign – has always functioned as he would wish. When the pressure to deliver rose to the top of the rugby barometer during this global gathering, his players were found wanting.