Michael Calvin: Lancaster's Pyramid of Success erodes as his charges get key calls wrong
The Calvin Report: Flood left a serious job half done. England could not afford his misses
Sunday 25 November 2012
Stuart Lancaster has admirable mentors, impeccable instincts, and obvious qualities. He is PowerPoint perfect, and commands professional respect beyond rugby. But without wins, the currency of credibility in international sport, England's head coach is exposed.
The ritual analysis of another defeat, and its concentration on another flawed decision made under duress by his captain, Chris Robshaw, left him facing the most dispiriting of damage-limitation exercises. His England are big on buzzwords, but short on recent achievement.
The worthlessness of a moral victory was compounded by the confusion which defined the game's conclusion. Lancaster attempted to stifle debate about Robshaw's decision to order Owen Farrell to kick a penalty with 87 seconds remaining, but must have understood the futility of his caution. His Pyramid of Success is eroding before his very eyes.
The Pyramid is the visualisation of a principle for both sport and life. It was devised by John Wooden who, to borrow one of the worst phrases of American sport, is college basketball's "winningest" coach.
I met him just before his death, at the age of 99. Over breakfast he expounded on a coach's duty to produce athletes who were humble, hardworking, clear-thinking and conscious of life outside the bubble of their sport. It was the sort of homily that convinced Lancaster to follow his lead and give a philosophical dimension to his coaching.
Just as Clive Woodward adopted principles first applied in North America and the southern hemisphere, Lancaster has used external influences to meet an eternal climate of expectation. Lancaster has earned the respect of such luminaries as the England football manager, Roy Hodgson, and Dave Brailsford, British cycling's pivotal figure.
He is the prize product of the RFU's coaching system, and they will not reject him lightly. Yet international matches are decided by small margins, decisions made with ice in the veins and fire in the belly. England improved their scrummaging without solving problems in the line-out, and, though beaten by a freak try, were undermined by moments of individual frailty.
Lancaster's belief in a "leaderful" team is taken from Ric Charlesworth, the renaissance man of modern hockey coaching. It was hardly justified by the visible disagreement between Robshaw and Farrell with the game on the line.
Rugby players don't suit the topiary of Movember, and Toby Flood's impression of a cartoon cowboy was incongruous. He left a serious job, which relied on his nerve and technique under pressure, half done. In such a tight game England could not afford Flood's two early penalty misses. He hit his second penalty heavy, like a chunky golf shot, and the ball squirted to the right.
England have lacked composure under pressure. They have proved fallible mentally. The Springboks are masters of bringing a contest down to the common denominator of relentless physicality.
It is not a new observation but, given the relevance of the Clattenburg case, any refugee from football would have found the insight into the manner and effectiveness of the referee, Nigel Owens, enlightening.
He pulled both captains and the packs together when he had seen enough of palsied scrums: "Not one completed legally," he told them. "Either we are going to get it done or you are going off, and we will get someone on who can."
No one doubted England's readiness to put bodies on the line, but we are approaching a critical phase in Lancaster's England career. An improved performance justified six changes, but the trick, beyond these autumn internationals, will be to sustain a sense of continuity and unanimity.
Another influence on Lancaster, the late NFL coach Bill Walsh, summed up the delicate nature of the England coach's challenge if, as logic suggests, the All Blacks confirm the southern hemisphere's dominance at Twickenham next Saturday.
"The best coaches know that the job is to win," he once said. "They know that they must be decisive, that they must phase people through their organisation. At the same time they must be sensitive to the feelings, loyalties and emotions that people have toward one another. If you don't have these feelings, I do not know how you can lead anyone."
Wooden's writings, too, can offer words of advice for his disciple: "Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out. It's what you learn, after you know it all, that counts."
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