Chris Hewett: In Stuart Lancaster England have a teacher eager to learn

He sees is as a sign of strength to sit down and listen to those offering fresh perspectives on well-worn themes

Any man who applies for a head of department's job at a high school before actually qualifying as a teacher, as the England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster did way back when in the 1990s, is not obviously short of positivity, enthusiasm and self-belief – three foundation stones of what he calls the "pyramid of success". Another of those building blocks is the "balanced ego": a virtue only occasionally associated with sports folk operating at elite level.

To the 43-year-old Cumbrian's mind – and when it comes to high performance and its maximisation, his mind is patently far better developed than his critics had us believe this time last year – that balance is achieved, at least in part, by the open acknowledgement that there is always more to learn. Hence his strong attachment to the musings and theories of such fabled figures as the American football coaches Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi, the Stateside basketball boss John Wooden (who first came up with the "pyramid" idea) and the Australian rugby league strategist Wayne Bennett.

During his frequent long drives from the north of England to Twickenham or the red-rose base in Bagshot – he has been known to set off at 3am in an effort to spare himself the worst miseries of the M25 – he listens to the notions of Walsh and Lombardi in "talking book" form. In conversation, he frequently cites other influences on his career, not least one of those who coached the England team before him, Brian Ashton.

Lancaster routinely asks leading practitioners from other sports, both major and minor, to address his players at squad gatherings. Last week the former England cricket captain Andrew Strauss was invited to the pre-Six Nations training camp in Leeds, as was Toni Minichiello, the coach of the Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis. Previously, he has persuaded the former England footballer Gary Neville and the Tour de France-winning cyclist Bradley Wiggins to offer their thoughts on sporting success.

To Lancaster, it is a sign of strength, rather than of weakness, to sit down and listen to those offering fresh perspectives on well-worn themes, just as he is happy to give the floor to his England back-room colleagues when the situation demands. As head coach, he played a strong hand in establishing new ground rules for the national squad, jettisoning those players he felt were more trouble than they were worth and reminding others, some of them all too easily led during the tawdry World Cup campaign of 2011, of their responsibilities to the shirt. But there are natural communicators of a different stamp in his set-up – the authoritative and straight-talking Andy Farrell, for instance – and he understands their value.

Lancaster frequently talks of the "chemistry" in his coaching team being all-important and is a believer in partnership. The "great man" theory of everything – the idea that nothing was ever achieved except by one man acting alone – is not for him. He is not the first England rugby coach to cherry-pick the best that has been thought and done across the broad spectrum of sport: Sir Clive Woodward did something similar during the years that led to the World Cup victory in 2003. He may, however, be the first to engage in a cross-sport alliance on this scale.

Five wise men: coaching club

Stuart Lancaster

Has worked for the RFU for four years; appointed England coach last year after a successful interim stint.

Mike Forde

Director of football operations at Chelsea since 2007. His remit includes player recruitment.

Geoff McGrath

Runs McLaren Applied Technologies, which has branched out into helping other sports.

Dave Brailsford

Oversaw British cycling's historic 2012 – a first ever Tour de France victory, and eight Olympic golds.

Damien Comolli

Left Liverpool last April after an unsuccessful spell as director of football strategy.


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