Stuart Lancaster will today be confirmed as the new full-time England head coach after his 6 Nations success. Despite rumours that the RFU would go for the more experienced Nick Mallett, coming second in the European tournament was enough to earn a reported four-year contract. This can only be good news for English rugby.
Lancaster has achieved a staggering amount since January. He came to a squad which was disunited, stagnant and low on confidence after a poor World Cup. Before the tournament, England were widely tipped to finish fourth, possibly third if they could overcome Ireland at home. Indeed, Scotland had the novel experience of being favourites for the opening fixture at Murrayfield.
The former Leeds and England Saxons coach had other ideas, however. With just three weeks to mould the squad before the competition began, his initial focus was discipline, both on and off the field. He used motivational speakers, letters from coaches, friends and family and simple team-building exercises to ensure that players felt pride in the jersey and trust in each other. This then translated into wholehearted defensive efforts against Scotland and Italy, in which the most striking feature was exceptional discipline under pressure. There is no doubt that Martin Johnson’s England would have lost both those games through conceding needless penalties – Lancaster’s side kept their heads and allowed their excellent scramble defence (and some woeful Scottish decision-making) to bail them out.
From that base, the Lancaster-Farrell-Rowntree triumvirate has gone on to achieve an incredible breadth of improvement. As well as upgrading the defensive system from a scramble defence to an aggressive, hard-hitting blitz, they have given England structure and depth in attack and turned a decent pack in an absolute wrecking ball; they successfully blooded a whole raft of new players, from the ice-cool Owen Farrell to the rampaging Ben Morgan, and have turned previously average-looking players into Test match competitors (think Geoff Parling); and, even better, there has been clear evidence of top class coaching. It is surely no coincidence that Dan Cole and Tom Croft, both players with an abundance of class but little to show for it in recent seasons, had their best ever periods in an England shirt – this is where Lancaster’s experience as a developmental coach really tells.
The only danger to Lancaster’s bid to get the position permanently was shifting expectations. If you had offered England fans in January two wins and a desperately unlucky loss to Wales from their first three games, they would have taken your hand off. That alone was serious progress from the dark days of December, when leaked reports offered little hope of any cohesion at all. Suddenly, however, there was talk of needing a win against France (and I remain convinced that a loss to the World Cup finalists, even away from home, would have given those seeking Mallett’s appointment just the opportunity they needed to sow seeds of doubt about Lancaster’s credentials). This was asking a coach who had conjured something from nothing not only to put in a credible performance, but a record-breaking one. That he achieved this most unreasonable of requirements, in a display overflowing with pace and style, is truly amazing.
England were not perfect in the 6 Nations, of course, and there remain serious questions to be answered – can England attack if Tuilagi isn’t fit? Why is the lineout so hit and miss? Can they learn to put sides to the sword when they’re on top, as they failed to do against France and Wales? Perhaps most importantly of all, given that he is a crucial part of the three-man team that has brought England so far so quickly, will the RFU be able to prise Andy Farrell away from Saracens? There is absolutely no doubt, however, that Lancaster is the right man to be searching for these answers.