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James Lawton: Stop worrying. Lancaster has earned himself a shot at title

England coach fully deserves his new post after cleaning up World Cup mess in style

James Lawton
Friday 30 March 2012 10:43 BST
Stuart Lancaster's appointment should mean English rugby is in safe hands
Stuart Lancaster's appointment should mean English rugby is in safe hands (Getty Images)

So now, naturally, English rugby union agonises over whether Stuart Lancaster should have been thanked, patted on his head and sent on his way with his pail of water and cleaning utensils.

The theory is that while Lancaster had his uses – and most importantly the one of swabbing away the worst evidence of a culture which reeked of arrogance and general professional dysfunction – he is now likely to be found out for his lack of wide international experience on the long march through four Tests against South Africa, and one each against New Zealand, Australia and Fiji.

There is one big problem with all this fretting – which includes worries that a particularly poor showing against the southern hemisphere (or, put another way, one even bleaker than might have been expected had an old hand like Nick Mallett been in charge of the hosts at the 2015 World Cup) – in that it undervalues quite outrageously the achievement of Lancaster in his temporary posting.

Let's remember quite what it was the Twickenham back-room boy was asked to do. It wasn't simply to clean up the worst of the mess left by England's masquerade as half-serious challengers in the last World Cup. It was to make an entirely new start, in personnel, team ethos and even the most basic understanding of what might be expected from a professional wearing the shirt of his national team.

Not only did Lancaster pull this off with scarcely one missed heart-beat, he came within a late, blood-curdling Welsh tackle of a draw with the best team in Europe – and then went to Paris and snuffed out the World Cup finalists who had knocked out England in the quarter-finals.

Having been asked to draw a line in some very grubby sand, Lancaster went quite a bit further.

Not only did he imbue a new young team with some sharply improved values, he also created a considerable winning momentum. Yes, at times England were rough at the edges, yes they might have benefited from some grooming by the richly experienced Mallett and his possible attack coach, New Zealander Wayne Smith, but by the end of the campaign they were immeasurably better.

What more could the tyro international coach have done? He could easily have outrun himself. He could have been a little carried away by his new importance. He could have started to call the odds when Premiership coaches started to advise him on team selections, as one did when he opted to stick with the glowing potential of Owen Farrell rather than switch back, at the first opportunity, to the tried but scarcely overwhelming Toby Flood. Not only did Lancaster keep his nerve, he also kept his head out of the self-advancement trough.

You may say that was merely smart politics in the corridors of a Twickenham still reeling from the consequences of the World Cup fiasco. But whatever it was, it suggested a man who knew how to behave in a difficult climate.

That he received such warm support from his team was perhaps not so significant. They would say nice things about him, wouldn't they? Martin Johnson was, after all, a dressing-room demigod, at least publicly, right up to the moment his trust was betrayed irreparably.

It meant that when the RFU this week came to make its choice it was hoisted on the unavoidable consequences of the decision to turn to Lancaster at the worst of times. Had he merely tidied up the discipline and produced some decent results, of course it would have been a lot easier to say thanks but no thanks.

As it was, Lancaster made himself a rock-hard favourite on the terraces of Twickenham. If his credentials at the highest level still had to be questioned, there was no doubt he had earned himself a huge benefit of doubt. It may be true that there are few places like those terraces for instantly renewable faith but in this case, why not?

Lancaster gave Twickenham a new team which seemed genuinely attached to the idea that playing for England was worth it for its own sake. The stranded Johnno described his lot as blokes, even adults who could be left to decide between professional right and wrong, who would create their own discipline – and if they didn't, well, then he might be required to enforce a little of his own.

The discipline never happened – and nor did any righteous reaction from the man in charge.

Right from the start Lancaster said this wouldn't do – and he proved as good as his word when it was first challenged. This earned him the respect of his players – and the England job. Neither reward, you have to believe, has been lightly won.

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