Rugby followers the world over expect things to change for Stuart Lancaster early next month – and not in a good way. Those who believe the England head coach hit his lowest point on Grand Slam day in Cardiff some 14 months ago, when he watched his team being consumed by a Welsh conflagration and saw the ashes of his Six Nations ambitions being scattered over every hill and valley, also assume that at the start of June's three-Test tour something far worse will be inflicted by the All Blacks in Auckland, where the reigning global champions have not lost in two decades.
It is a false premise. Lancaster was well and truly burnt by that experience in Cardiff – he was still feeling extremely sensitive when, a couple of days later, he was uncharacteristically critical of the way the game had been refereed – but it was nowhere near the worst moment of his red-rose stewardship. For that, we must spool back a year.
"If you're asking me when I felt most vulnerable, when the difficulty of the job really hit home, it was between the end of the Six Nations and the start of the tour of South Africa in 2012," he says. "It was when Andy Farrell decided that he would stay with Saracens rather than commit himself full-time to the England coaching team. That was hard, because I knew that if I was to stand a chance of being successful in the long term, I would need quality people around me – people like Andy, with whom I'd built up a rapport and who had so much to offer.
"I felt we did well in that series against the Springboks given our state of flux, but it took a huge amount of energy to hold things together. We were missing a piece of the jigsaw and I didn't really have a good fit in mind. When we got home, I said to the Rugby Football Union: 'Go and get Andy. Whatever it takes, this needs to happen.' Which it did. It was a turning point."
There have been disappointments since Farrell's return as backs coach, and just lately Lancaster has been a little cranky with the media: he was particularly annoyed by the assertion in one national newspaper that he had asked Sale to rest Danny Cipriani from last weekend's Premiership match at London Irish because the precociously gifted but occasionally troublesome outside-half was being considered for a return to England duty. The coach went public with a fierce rebuttal, and the offending organ duly apologised. "I'm quite keen on people being accountable for their actions," he points out, just a little sharply.
But all things considered, he believes England are in a good place before the trip to New Zealand, despite the travesty over the timing of the Test programme and all the spin-off issues that are making his life infinitely more complicated than it should be. "We're so much further down the track than we were two years ago when we went to South Africa with a team that had been pretty much thrown together," he says. "We have consistency of selection, there's been an evolution of the game plan, we've spent time together. Of course, we'll be nowhere near the All Blacks when it comes to experience. The cap count? Not even close. But in terms of our collective understanding of what's expected of us, and the depth of our belief, I think we've made significant progress."
Much of that progress is down to Lancaster's punishing approach to his job. Besides running the Test team on a day-to-day basis, maintaining close contacts with the rugby directors of all 12 Premiership clubs and planning next year's home World Cup campaign, he has a firm managerial grip on the second-string Saxons, the national age-group squads, the women's team and the seven-a-siders. He knows the strengths, weaknesses and boot sizes of every top-notch academy player in the country and is forever refining his ideas on how the structure of the English game can be improved. If he is reluctant to call himself a workaholic, it is because he doesn't have time to say the word.
To do all the ancillary work – not that the coach would describe it so dismissively – without detracting from the shop window stuff requires a level of self-confidence, not to say expertise, that many rugby folk suspected was beyond Lancaster when he was appointed, initially on an interim basis, in the aftermath of England's wretched World Cup campaign in 2011 and Martin Johnson's subsequent resignation as manager.
Some saw him as nothing more than a Twickenham apparatchik; others had barely heard of him. Where, said subscribers to the "great man" theory of rugby coaching, were the big-name candidates? Where was the heft, the stature, the substance?
Lancaster heard all the dismissive noises off, but never once did he doubt his capacity to run the show. "No, I hadn't enjoyed a stellar playing career," he acknowledges, "but as I'd taught for 10 years, spent seven years at a senior club, done the Saxons job for three years and completed every coaching qualification available to me with the support of some brilliant mentors, I didn't question my own ability. However, I knew there were a lot of people out there in need of convincing.
"When you don't have credibility – which I suppose I didn't in the public sense – it's up to you to earn it.
"I have an idea about credibility. Imagine a graph with a vertical axis: the zero at the bottom represents no credibility, the 100 mark at the top represents all the credibility in the world – the right kind of CV, the glowing track record. Some might come into a job at 20, some at 80, but in both cases, they will either gain or lose depending on how effectively they handle certain situations. A coach who doesn't start with a high rating but deals well with people, shows good management skills and is honest, forward thinking and technically adept… he'll rise up the graph. Equally, if you arrive with a big reputation but turn out not to be good at handling people, or lose your rag under pressure, then you lose points, and when that happens, the players eventually stop listening to you and start talking behind your back. And then, suddenly, you're gone.
"That, I think, is what I've had to do: come in at 20 and gather points as I've gone along. I haven't done everything right, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have good people in the coaching team – Andy, Graham Rowntree, Mike Catt – and with their input, we've generated some forward momentum."
If that momentum continues, England could have a very big say indeed in the outcome of next year's global tournament but, first, they must negotiate a brutal fixture programme: the three-Test schlep around New Zealand, followed by a four-match autumn series against southern hemisphere opposition of whom the weakest will be the potentially spectacular Samoans, followed by another high-intensity Six Nations. All of which begs an awkward question: short of actually winning the Webb Ellis Trophy in 17 months' time, can Lancaster's tour of duty conceivably end happily?
"Before I took on this job," he says after a brief burst of laughter, "I did pause to reflect on what had happened to the England coaches before me. In international sport, there aren't many who finish on their own terms. I realise that. Look at Premier League football, which to me is at the cutting edge of pressure with its level of scrutiny – the equivalent of Test rugby being played week in week out. What's the average shelf life of a manager – 13 months? I've already survived a bit longer than that, thankfully, but you see my point.
"Back at the end of 2011, I talked this through with my wife at great length, because I was very aware of what I'd be putting my family through by making a commitment on this scale. I'd be accountable if things went wrong, and they would feel some of the effects. But you also have to back your-self and your beliefs, and that's what I did and continue to do. How will it end? I have a master plan, although I won't divulge the details. What I'd say is this: when I look at what we've built since the 2012 Six Nations, I feel motivated to carry on beyond 2015. But of course, I also know the size of the challenge just around the corner."
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Lancaster era highs...
South Africa 14 England 14 Port Elizabeth, June 2012
Deprived of his lieutenant-in-chief Andy Farrell and in dire straits with injuries, Lancaster took bold selection decisions and saw his side land a first blow on southern hemisphere opposition.
England 38 New Zealand 21 Twickenham, December 2012
A red-letter day for the red-rose army. The six tries were split evenly but England spanked the world champions everywhere else to record their best victory in almost a decade. (Picture credt: Getty)
... and lows
England 14 Australia 20 Twickenham, November 2012
The England think-tank were out-thought by the Wallabies, who played with great intelligence. The contest was not as close as the scoreline suggested.
Wales 30 England 3 Millennium Stadium, March 2013
Too horrible for words. England crossed the Severn Bridge in search of a Grand Slam and returned with plenty of nothing after losing the battle up front. (Getty)