A little more than a year ago in Leeds, a stranger stepped up to the microphone to answer a series of probing questions. He was there to fill a role which had for a long time been riddled with political complexities, sandwiched between a rock and a very hard place – or in Martin Johnson’s case, between the very different roles of former teammate and manager.
At that time Stuart Lancaster was unknown, under qualified and, for many, verging on unwelcome.
And so we sat, arms crossed and eyebrows raised, awaiting an announcement that we were certain would reveal a predictable play-it-safe attitude and a reluctance to add fuel to an already blazing fire. Instead, what we were handed was a fearless approach to interim management, which went on to land Stuart Lancaster the job in the long term.
17 uncapped players were thrown into the England dressing room that day; all of whom came to learn quickly that under Lancaster’s watch, no-one’s position is safe.
Now, some thirteen months later, the revolution has passed and Lancaster finds himself in the midst of a second Six Nations in the driving seat. The brief has changed dramatically. No longer is there a focus on invoking drastic change, introducing new codes of conduct or calling on inspirational figures outside of the world of rugby. Now it is about silencing concerns that England is little more than a side that auspiciously dodged its way past the greatest team in the world. It is about building on that memorable moment and recreating England’s long lost reputation as a force to be recognised.
When Stuart Lancaster announced his 33 man squad on January 9th he made a few things very clear.
He believes in second chances
“The governor confident enough to turn previous sin to his advantage” Eddie Butler, The Observer
Lancaster’s no-nonsense approach to misbehaviour was clear from day one. Exhibit one, Danny Care. Where Care’s misdemeanours would have been swept well under the carpet by Johnson in an effort to hold on to a number nine of Care’s calibre at any cost, Lancaster’s approach was in stark contrast. He was quick to acknowledge the player’s wrongdoing and unafraid to impose an appropriate sanction, regardless of how that decision would go on to impact his squad.
Similarly we look to Calum Clark, a player who endured a 32 match ban for breaking the elbow of Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins last season. Influenced perhaps in part by Clark’s guilty plea and in part by the fact that Clark is a player whose progress he has followed since the age of 14, Lancaster opted again to re-open the door to the England camp.
It seems that according to the rulebook of Lancaster, once the punishment has been served and an appropriate degree of reformation has been demonstrated, a player deserves the right to prove his worth once more.
But Lancaster’s approach to discipline does not include the imposition of pointless brief spells on the naughty step; nor is it about winning at all costs. It is about taking players to battle who have earned their place on the field and if that means sidelining those who have somehow lost their way, and ultimately forfeiting the fight, then so be it.
He believes in the youth of today, for the benefit of tomorrow
“This is another example of their bold willingness to trust in youth, but also maintains a thread of sound logic and continuity” Chris Foy, Daily Mail
When England defeated New Zealand in the autumn they had 206 caps in their starting fifteen; the All Blacks had 788. On first glance, these numbers demonstrate the inexperience of the side that somehow came out on top but if we look more closely, what this actually reveals is Lancaster’s unyielding belief in the ability of his youngest players.
He rewards solid form at club level, regardless of age. For players like Billy Vunipola and Freddie Burns, this approach was their entry ticket to the international game. He recognises the strides that a player like Vunipola has taken at Wasps and rewards him with access to the senior squad training setup in return. It is these very decisions that will ensure England’s youngest players remain hot on the heels of their senior counterparts and ultimately that they can help to create the next generation of England rugby.
He is never one to rest on his laurels
“With great results comes great responsibility and with great responsibility comes greater fear of falling flat on your face.” Alan Dymock, Rugby World
If you thought that the 38-21 annihilation of the All Blacks was a cue to sit back, relax and revel in the moment, you would be wrong. For Lancaster, even beating the unbeatables is not enough to warrant a feet up, tea in hand approach.
Taking nothing away from that autumn victory or England’s first match win over Scotland, the challenge in hand is one which stems far and beyond any of this. Ultimately when England win we expect them to go on winning. As BBC Sport’s Tom Fordyce pointed out, a remarkable thrashing like that against the All Blacks “simultaneously made Lancaster’s job both easier and harder.”
He believes in the power of the Saxons
“The Saxons squad is no mere appendage” Stuart Barnes, The Sunday Times
Lancaster has continually shown that he is not afraid to call upon the Saxons as an extended arm of the elite side. When you look to the list of names drawn initially across both squads, there was a wealth of talent both capable and deserving of a place in the starting 15 at Twickenham.
Lancaster’s history with the Saxons has paved the way for greater accessibility and greater opportunity. He is of the belief that access to the elite environment is the very thing that can turn a good club player into a top international one.
He keeps one eye on 2015
“Lancaster’s intention was always to settle on a group of young players who would be the backbone of the side not only for a few months but right through to the 2015 World Cup and beyond” Mick Cleary, Daily Telegraph
The focus has never been on the here and now; it is, and always has been, on creating a squad that can be carried through to 2015. Lancaster demonstrates belief in players whom we continue to doubt, and time and time again he is proved right. There was a time when the pressure on the shoulders of Owen Farrell was deemed far too great….yet now he continues to make his presence felt as a world class number 10. Ben Morgan, meanwhile, was branded unworthy of a place on even the Welsh bench…..just a few months later Lancaster and Rowntree have overseen Morgan’s transition into a key component of England’s back row.
Year one was about laying the foundations; now it is about erecting a build that holds the greatest chance of withstanding the storm. And we all know that the weather in the Southern hemisphere can be far more dangerous and far less predictable.
Finally…..he is pretty damn good at proving his biggest critics wrong
“He has successfully debunked the theory that international coaching is an elevated form that only former giants of the game can understand.” Owen Slot, The Times
Words by Sarah Taylor
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