It was hard not to leave Twickenham yesterday feeling optimistic. Perhaps it was the good mood among the various stragglers leaving the ground following the Varsity Match, but after Stuart Lancaster spoke first alongside his new coaching partners Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree and then on his own, it was hard not to be convinced.
The combination of Rowntree’s obvious pain at what happened in New Zealand, and the optimism of Lancaster and Farrell should stand England in good stead, not least because the three appear to be tightly-bonded, something that Lancaster stated had not been the case in the past. “You could see there’s been too many people involved before. We want to keep it tight, but we will have specialist support in some key areas, such as kicking where we plan to bring in Jon Callard.”
The breakdown will be that Lancaster will be Head Coach, Rowntree in charge of the forwards, with Farrell covering backs and defence. The last name in that mix was a surprise pick to most, and Farrell confessed that he would have never dreamed of coaching his country in the XV man game when he was a League superstar at Wigan. There will be a review of what went wrong at the World Cup in January, but then that will be that and the players will be straight on the training pitch.
Truthfully, Lancaster made you feel more at ease about where England were going. Everything, from philosophy to playing style to potential selection, seemed well thought out and clear. Who would be his captain for the first game? “That will be decided after the January camp. We want to have a leadership group of not necessarily senior players, 7 or 8, and to see how they work with the coaches and gameplan. Then a decision will be made.”
That sort of clarity with the media was something rarely found in Johnson’s regime, especially towards the end. All of the ‘classic’ lines such as “restoring pride in the shirt”, “picking players on form”, did not feel clichéd, but genuine. Perhaps it’s Lancaster’s background as a school teacher that will stand him well in this stead. Strict but honest, his knowledge of the senior players is something that is a huge bonus, though unlike Johnson it has been acquired as a coach rather than playing alongside them.
“If you talk about a Danny Care, who I’ve coached since I was 15, all of those players that have come through have been coached by me. I know them, and I know them well, and it’s been nice today to have texts from them. It’s a big responsibility, but what a fantastic one.” The reality is that right now Lancaster essentially has two months, and from the last game of the Six Nations against Ireland at Twickenham, who knows what will happen. The one aspect however that he wants to ensure, is that by the time England tour South Africa in the summer, there will be a solid foundation looking forward ahead to the next Rugby World Cup.
Perhaps the most encouraging note that Lancaster ended the press conference was that England have a huge pool of exceptional talent, but they would need to work hard to wear the shirt. “I was up coaching U11s in Leeds last night before I got the call to come down. The pride in playing for England that you see in grassroots rugby is something we need to get back. I’m a school-teacher, and I think environment dictates behaviour. I spent my first 20 years growing up in Cumbria, and next 20 working in Yorkshire. If there’s anything I’ve learned, you don’t get ‘nowt for ‘owt.”
by Ben Coles