Six Nations 2013: Graham Rowntree regrets describing England as 'in the gutter'

Coach made statement following disastrous World Cup

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The Independent Online

Graham Rowntree regrets describing England as having been “in the gutter” following the 2011 World Cup, chiefly because it he did not intend it to sound like a criticism of his close friend Martin Johnson.

But Rowntree was right. The image of English rugby was grubby, tarnished by the national team's antics at the World Cup and by the bitter infighting at Twickenham which precipitated a managerial meltdown.

The Rugby Football Union instituted a "reputational damage rebuild plan" - consultancy jargon for "how do we get out of this mess?" - and central to it was the appointment of Stuart Lancaster as interim head coach.

That was just 15 months ago. England now sit on the brink of winning their first Grand Slam in a decade. Lancaster has spearheaded a radical about-turn in both the image and fortunes of English rugby.

But how did he do it?

Lancaster had been in New Zealand during the World Cup in his previous role as head of elite development. He knew from first-hand experience that the only way forward for England was to start afresh.

That meant a new team and a new attitude. He recognised the English rugby public had lost faith in the national team. His first task was to rebuild that connection and instil a new culture within the squad.

Lancaster may not have had the international reputation of a Nick Mallett, one of his rivals for the position, but he had spent a lifetime studying coaching and management. He knows how to build a team.

Fifteen members of that World Cup squad were axed immediately with more to follow over the course of 2012 and the traditional pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal was cancelled.

Lancaster took his squad to Leeds. They ran open training sessions and coaching forums and all while he was setting out the ground rules for his new England.

Discipline was everything, as Danny Care discovered when he was dropped from the squad after being arrested - and subsequently convicted - of drink driving.

It was a big call from Lancaster but it set the tone. The squad have a motto which is "England 365". Wherever they are, they must hold themselves as England players.

Those standards are set from within, by senior players who embody Lancaster's philosophy. his "generals" Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, Geoff Parling, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt.

The identity of Lancaster's England team was really forged in the furnace of Test rugby. He had demanded passion and commitment from his team and that began to shine through on the field.

They battled past Scotland and Italy before achieving landmark victories over France away and Ireland at home to finish second in the 2012 Six Nations.

England were beaten only by the eventual Grand Slam champions Wales in a thrillingly tight contest at Twickenham. It was after the Six Nations that Rowntree hailed Lancaster for dragging England out of the gutter.

He said it pressed Lancaster's case for the permanent job, which he was subsequently given ahead of Mallett and, according to some reports, Sir Clive Woodward.

It worked. Lancaster got the job and he is now in charge of all elite rugby at Twickenham, both England head coach and national performance director. It has been a rapid rise.

Arguably Lancaster's most important decision was to recruit Andy Farrell, whose impact on England cannot be overstated. He has been a driving force behind the development of this team.

Farrell missed the summer tour of South Africa, a trip which proved to be one of the key staging posts in the development of this team. Having suffered two brutal defeats to the Springboks, they came back to draw the third Test.

Last autumn, England responded to two frustrating defeats to beat world champions New Zealand by a record margin. That was a game-changing performance. England suddenly knew what they were capable of.

"We showed this is a team that does not fold under pressure," Farrell said.

The confidence ran into the Six Nations. England took their attacking game to a new level as they put four tries past Scotland but it was their bedrock qualities of character, resilience and defensive fortitude which set up this Grand Slam shot.

Lancaster rated England's 12-6 victory over Ireland in Dublin as their biggest test of character and they built on that with a 23-13 win against France, having spent most of the game on the back foot.

"At the start, we didn't know what we were ourselves. What has grown now is that self-belief," Farrell said.

"We know we're a good side. We know we're hard to beat. We haven't lost away from home in the Six Nations for the last two years.

"Each time we are confronted with these situations, we keep getting better and stronger."

England are now 80 minutes away from winning the Grand Slam. All those memories of Queenstown, dwarves, grainy CCTV footage, drunken players and ferry diving have been consigned to a miserable chapter of history.

This team is the future. Win or not on Saturday, Lancaster is on course to achieve his aim of being in the top two in the world by the 2015 World Cup on home soil.