Stuart Lancaster is not easily provoked, but when his England players are accused of being all the things he most despises in the character of professional sportsmen – arrogant, patronising, condescending – he is perfectly prepared to fight his corner. The red-rose coach was at his sharpest in responding to the "superiority complex" taunts that have been streaming south from Scotland and in so doing, he ensured that Saturday's Calcutta Cup contest at Twickenham will be the most fascinating in years.
Jim Telfer, the grand old man of Scottish rugby who set the tone for the build-up by taking an almighty swipe at England at the start of the week, went on to accuse England of "showboating" during their startling victory over the All Blacks in December. He is not the only coach of international standing to make that precise charge – Eddie Jones, the former Australia coach, criticised the centre Manu Tuilagi for scoring his try in that game at a jog, rather than a sprint – but if Lancaster was willing to ignore the comments initially, he ran out of patience when confirming his line-up at the team hotel in Surrey.
"I don't think it's 'showboating' to celebrate a try," he said when asked for a response to Telfer's baiting. "That kind of thing is not in our culture, not in our nature and not what we believe in. Neither is it a reflection of what we're about as an England team. It may have been with teams in the past, but not this one. I don't want to be seen as an arrogant person, or as someone coaching an arrogant side."
On the quiet, one or two senior England players of yesteryear believe Telfer, a successful Lions coach and nobody's idea of a fool, has done Lancaster's motivational work for him. Certainly, it was a talking point in the camp. As the Saracens wing Chris Ashton, one of those singled out for personal criticism by Telfer, was heard to say: "I don't even know what condescending means!"
This time last year, Lancaster was a mere "interim" coach, preparing for the first game in what might have been a very short spell in the top job. That game was against Scotland, of all teams, and the narrow victory in Edinburgh changed everything for the Cumbrian.
Twelve months on, he is as secure in his position as he could possibly be: indeed, the range of his remit is now wider than anything enjoyed by Sir Clive Woodward, his World Cup-winning predecessor.
"I feel the victory over New Zealand confirmed to people that we have good players in the England squad, players who will fight for the shirt," he said. "It wasn't the people inside the room who needed that confirmation, but the people outside it. A year ago, I was sitting down with the players, going through a World Cup review that wasn't great reading.
"Now, we're much further down the road in terms of our teamship, of our collective understanding. But the mark of true champions is to win consistently when you're the ones being targeted. That's why there is a such sense of excitement, of pressure building, ahead of this match. It's a big old game, I think."
Lancaster's decision to stick, as far as possible, with the players who gave the All Blacks what for was widely anticipated: the only changes to the starting line-up are at loose-head prop and inside centre, where Joe Marler, of Harlequins, and the debutant Billy Twelvetrees, of Gloucester, come in for the injured Alex Corbisiero and Manu Tuilagi. But the coach was keen to emphasise that selection was tight in a number of positions, including hooker and scrum-half.
"Some of the choices were very difficult," he said. "After New Zealand I felt I needed to reward the player who had the shirt, but it's not a given that I'll always stick with a winning team. The important thing was to see how people have been performing since the All Black game, with their clubs and in camp. The fact is that just recently, players like Tom Youngs and Owen Farrell have shown excellent form in big games."
Youngs' rise to prominence has been quite something: it is no mean feat to keep a hooker as capable and experienced as Dylan Hartley, an England captain as recently as last June, on the bench.
"We didn't plan to give Tom all four games in the autumn, but that's how it turned out," Lancaster said. "He's been exceptional for us. In the same way, we didn't look at Joe Launchbury [the new lock from Wasps] and think he'd be starting international matches as quickly as he has. It's always the case: one man's injury is another man's opportunity."Reuse content