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Built on Sand: The House of Lancaster

Posted on | November 19, 2015 | No Comments

Stuart Lancaster had integrity, passion and excellent PR skills. But he never possessed what mattered most.

If a man is charming, likable and says all the right things, he’ll always start a new job on the front foot. Employers can be fooled. If a candidate impresses at interview, and seems easy to work with, it’s easy to get carried away and overlook things like qualifications and experience.

That’s exactly what happened when the RFU were charmed by Stuart Lancaster back in 2012. The like the cut of his jib, and his relaxed patriotism, and the cultural fit seemed too good to fail. They believed he’d learn on the job, and become a success, because they wanted to believe he would.

Easy option?

The RFU could have appointed a heavyweight like Jake White or Nick Mallett, but these characters were likely to be demanding – a bit like Sir Clive Woodward. The RFU didn’t want another headache, albeit a World Cup winning one, on their hands.

It wasn’t just the RFU who were impressed by Lancaster. The media were equally culpable. He seemed like a breath of fresh air after the snarling Martin Johnson. But nobody stopped to think. Who is this Stuart Lancaster? What has he achieved in the game?

The harsh reality was ignored. Before being handed the England reins, the grand sum of Lancaster’s achievements were thus: one season in premiership in which his side won just two games. Lancaster had never won a trophy; he had achieved nothing in Europe; he had a CV too thin for most premiership clubs let alone the national team.

Instead the RFU pretended that Lancaster’s vision – which basically amounted to pride in the shirt, discipline and hard work – was somehow revolutionary. There was just one problem: all national sports teams work hard and show pride. It’s the minimum requirement. What actually separates the men from the boys is tactical acumen, clear thinking and man management.

Inexperience shows

Lancaster lacked in all these key areas. He never understood how he wanted England to play. Selection was rarely consistent. Injuries didn’t help but Lancaster never, at any point, knew what his best side was. He went into the World Cup pool match as narrow favourites against Wales, with a 10, 12 and 13 combination that had never set foot on a rugby field together before.

England’s coach also panicked under pressure. In a year when George Ford excelled at fly-half, and expanded England’s game, Owen Farrell was inexplicably recalled at crunch time. What’s more, his substitutions always often seemed premeditated and nonsensical.

Lancaster’s man management was also found wanting. After rejecting calls to select Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon, ostensibly because choosing outsiders at the last minute would unsettle the squad, he inexplicably called up Sam Burgess at the eleventh hour at the expense of the deserving Luther Burrell.

Meanwhile, Lancaster shunned the brilliant but somewhat disruptive personalities England needed. Part of a coach’s brief is to manage difficult but talented individuals. By excluding the likes of Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi on disciplinary grounds, Lancaster avoided this challenge altogether.

Overall, Lancaster’s tenure was one of muddled thinking both on and off the pitch. Progress was either fleeting or non-existent. Four consecutive 2nd place finishes in the Six Nations reveals its own story. England always blew it with the big prize in sight.

While England probably didn’t have the playing talent to win the 2015 World Cup, the semi-finals should not have been beyond them. England are the richest rugby nation, with the biggest pool of players, in the world. Lancaster never had the pedigree to make the most of the resources available. He was charming to the last, but charisma can only take a team so far.




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