David Flatman: Lancaster is the analogue man in a digital world – and I like it that way
From the Front Row: He does not just talk about 'engaging with the people', he actually does it
Sunday 01 April 2012
After what seems like an age, English rugby can breathe a quick sigh of relief and start getting on with it. Stuart Lancaster, the man dropped in to keep a big seat warm for a big name, somehow managed in no time to rebrand, restructure and rejuvenate the national team and has now become a big name himself. Good on him.
Searching for ways to express how I think the England set-up has changed, I could think of no better answer than to say that it is a long time since I wanted them to win so much. This may sound unpatriotic but like every professional player in the country, I have spent a good amount of time watching England games when I thought I could have been playing in them.
Deluded, perhaps, but this level of (occasionally blind) ambition is what drove us to this point. This all means that every viewing has been undertaken with just a slight twinge of bitterness and jealousy, and no little disappointment in myself for not being good enough to be there.
Of course, most of us players are mates so I would always want them to win, but there were natural, negative undertones to my support that I could not escape. Most players will deny this for fear of offending the supporters, but would you really want the men you pay to watch not to care a jot that they were not picked for England? I doubt it.
Those feelings have now all gone. Perhaps this is because any hope I had of earning more international caps is gone, or perhaps I have just grown up a bit. But I really do not think these are the only reasons.
This new – and we can call it new because it feels it – England team and their coaches and their attitude have made me a true supporter once again.
Not since I was a kid have I yelled at the television during an England match, but I did when they beat France. You see rugby is my job, not my hobby, so most games are watched with an instinctively critical eye. That tends to dilute the romance of the occasion. Once the anthems are done, it has for so long been just about watching the performance and thinking it through in my own terms.
Now I am a 10-year-old again and that, absolutely, is down to Lancaster. Sure, he is not out there playing, but he is the one – with the help of the universally admired Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell – who builds the culture in which these men have become an inspiration when we needed it most. He does not just talk about "engaging with the people", he actually does it.
His boys do it, and they do it gladly as they feel both committed to their boss's vision and lucky to be where they are. Lancaster believes in his vision and only wants men who will buy in without cynicism, without question. As a bloke he does not like his charges to be a walkover; he likes and welcomes other opinions. But if you sap energy from the group by misbehaving or moaning, you're gone. This shows both humility and ruthlessness, and this has to be good news.
From what I hear, the England camp is a fun place to be. Challenging but fun, and that is vital: players must look forward to arriving for duty. Some believe that was not always the case under the previous regime, although this seems harsh to me.
To criticise anyone who feels less than totally enthused is to again forget that this is a job and all jobs – even ones as wonderful as playing rugby for England – can feel arduous at times.
This is human nature. So Lancaster's job was to make it an aspirational environment and, social engagement and intelligent quotes aside, that must begin on the field. Without results, coaching kids and behaving properly and going back to the grass roots mean little. With results the whole vision begins to be believable and begins to make this into a team that we, as a nation, can support from the stands and from our armchairs.
Yes, a Nick Mallett or a Jake White would have given instant credibility but that would have been a dud move. Rugby should never be about buying in talent in place of backing and developing what you already have – we can leave that to the Chelseas of this world.
No, we have a proper bloke who loves rugby, works his socks off and values above all else the ethos of the team. In some ways it seems like an analogue approach in a digital world, and I'm happy with that.
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