Monday, April 9, 2012

Stuart Lancaster's England Are a Wilting Rose

New man in charge
On March 29th, Stuart Lancaster was named as permanent head coach of the England rugby team. Following his successful, although brief, period as interim boss during a Six Nations campaign that saw England win four out of their five matches, many have been quick to heap praise on the new boss. However, a more in-depth investigation into the events surrounding his appointment would suggest that the current optimism in the English rugby camp may be short-lived.

A woeful World Cup campaign in New Zealand at the end of 2011 will be remembered more for the irresponsible and unprofessional antics of the England rugby team off the field than their undisciplined and disorganised behaviour on it.

Unsavoury reports of law-breaking during matches and drunken misdemeanours between fixtures left Martin Johnson with no option, but to resign, proving that great players don’t always make great coaches.
The month of mayhem left the reputation of the England Rugby Football Union in tatters and with confidence at an all-time low, many had pencilled this year’s Six Nations as a potentially huge embarrassment for English rugby.

Enter Stuart Lancaster.

A shameful World Cup
A new-look England squad made heavy work of their opening two fixtures with narrow victories over Scotland and Italy, although winning was the most important factor. A spirited performance against Wales, ending in a controversial defeat, showed signs that Lancaster had moved quickly to change the ethos in the camp. A memorable victory in Paris and a resounding win over the Irish at Twickenham further compounded the suspicion that whatever Lancaster was doing, was working.

The constant flow of penalties that England had conceded under Johnson, combined with a lack of conviction and identity had been replaced with a passion, discipline and belief causing players and pundits alike to pay homage to the impact of Lancaster in his role as interim head coach.

Debates ensued as to who held the credentials to take on the role of England head coach on a full-time basis and it appeared in recent weeks that the RFU had narrowed their list of suitable candidates down to Lancaster and former South African and Italian head coach Nick Mallet.

Lack of discipline
Due to England’s relative success in the Six Nations, many voiced opinions to suggest that Lancaster should be rewarded for his outstanding work and when unveiled as the new permanent boss, the news was met with enthusiasm from the overwhelming majority.

But, was Lancaster the right man for the job and will he still be regarded as the saviour of English rugby come the turn of the year?

When assessing the calibre of Lancaster’s opposition, it becomes obvious that the magnitude of Mallet’s achievements far outweigh his own.

With a coaching career that commenced in 1984 and boasts five clubs, two national teams, World Cup experience, two French domestic titles, a Tri-Nations triumph, a claim to raising Italy to the heights of a world-class rugby nation and a record winning stretch of 17 consecutive test wins with the Springbok, amongst others, Mallet’s accolades speak for themselves.

Vastly experienced
In stark contrast, Lancaster’s coaching career began recently in 2006 as Director of Rugby at Leeds Carnegie, having run Leeds RFU Academy for the previous five years.

Former England World Cup winner Ben Cohen admitted, “I don’t think he’s the right man. Nick Mallet has got credentials coming out of his ears, he has got a great CV [and is someone] who knows how to react in tough times.”

In Lancaster’s defence, he has stated in no uncertain terms that his reign will be one of steady progression, warning against building expectations too high, too soon. The RFU has moved quickly to back-up Lancaster, re-iterating that his ultimate mission is to bring success to English rugby when the 2015 World Cup is played on home soil.

Cohen countered, “Yes...he has got four years to build up to the World Cup, but you want someone who has got experience of managing through that. You look at the Six Nations as a honeymoon period and there are testing times to come ahead.”
Many current England internationals filed rapid responses in favour of Lancaster’s appointment, although cynics would claim these were acts of personal gain to get on the right side of a man who disagrees with favouritism.

Favours Mallet
England’s Six Nations captain, Tom Croft, announced, “He did a great job so he is the ideal man to keep in the role. I look forward to working with him again in the summer, if I am selected.”

A host of ex-internationals seemed to back Lancaster, though few appeared to speak with real persuasion. Jeremy Guscott revealed, "The results made it almost impossible not to give him the job. The future for Lancaster is fairly bright, but we have to keep a lid on the expectation.”

Leicester head coach and former England hooker, Richard Cockerill, believes, “Stuart is there by circumstance rather than by ambition.”
Ex-England captain, Martin Corry, went further into the nature of Lancaster’s appointment, suggesting, “I think the process has to be questioned a little bit. You look at Wayne Smith [former All Blacks assistant coach], who I regard as a world-class coach. He ruled himself out, saying the job seemed more like a PR exercise than actually coaching a world-class side.”

Lancaster has emerged from the Six Nations with a glowing reputation but, as is often the case with sports fans, followers must not be short-sighted and acknowledge that much tougher tasks lie ahead. In June, England travel to South Africa for a three match series, before hosting the ‘Big Three’ southern hemisphere teams and Fiji at Twickenham this winter. There is a real possibility that England will walk away from the next seven fixtures with just one victory.

Tough tests lie ahead
Even former England hooker Brian Moore, overtly vocal in his support for Lancaster, conceded, “They have got southern hemisphere games that they are likely to lose and it will not be a straightforward path.”

In December 2011, the English were in a state of despair with their national rugby team, given their failure to conduct themselves appropriately on and off the pitch. Four months later, this appears to be a distant memory as the media misrepresents a small step as a giant leap in the revolution of English rugby.

While the outcome of the last five games was a pleasant surprise for most fans, three narrow victories and one comfortable result against a diminished Ireland side, is not enough to convince most realists that England are a transformed outfit.

Given that they face the possibility of several heavy losses before the end of the year, it will be interesting to see whether the public still believe in a highly inexperienced head coach as the right man to lead England come December 2012.

Stuart Lancaster’s red rose has weathered the first storm, but must withstand some treacherous conditions before it has the chance to bloom.

Written by Dom Wallace


Post a Comment

Sport 4 Thought will reply to all comments within 24 hours...