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Stuart Lancaster unable to prove himself at highest level

Published 11/11/2015

Stuart Lancaster, centre, was haunted by the controversial selection of Sam Burgess, left
Stuart Lancaster, centre, was haunted by the controversial selection of Sam Burgess, left

Stuart Lancaster was the man who supposedly re-invented English rugby, yet left office with a reputation - like so many before him - in tatters.

Look at most coaching appointments, in whatever sport or at whatever level, and they usually tell a tale of what has gone on before.

Naming a coach is often a reaction to history, the rush to seek alternative therapy to cure previous ills.

This is what happened amid the fall-out of England's shambolic 2011 World Cup campaign when dwarf-throwing and ferry-jumping entered the rugby lexicon and Martin Johnson's side tumbled out in disgrace at the quarter-final stage.

Johnson paid the price for England's embarrassment, even though this national hero had delivered the nation's greatest rugby moment in holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup eight years earlier.

Foreign successors were supposedly being lined up like a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal, but in the end the Rugby Football Union found its man on the doorstep.

Lancaster was born in the Cumbrian town of Penrith but his rugby education, both playing and coaching, was shaped in Yorkshire at Wakefield, Headingley and Leeds.

Whereas Johnson was a fearsome character and commanded respect by virtue of what he had achieved in the game, Lancaster was thoughtful, methodical and knew he had to win the doubters over from an early age.

If coaches were supposed to be charismatic, assertive and either proven international players or familiar with high-profile coaching jobs, then Lancaster did not fit the bill.

After all, this was a man who had been selecting teams for Kettlethorpe High School, instead of being a leader of men or Lions.

But Lancaster felt not playing professional rugby gave him the edge when it came to coaching in the Test arena.

"I've had to work hard: I never played professional rugby, never coached at the highest level and came from being a PE teacher from a school in Wakefield," Lancaster once said in an interview with the Daily Mail.

"But you gain points along the way. You develop your credibility and eventually people respect and listen to what you've got to say.

"I do think credibility is important to be successful as a leader and it doesn't come just from results.

"There are more fundamental things: being honest, being inspiring, doing what you say you're going to do.

"And getting them all to believe in you. There's a great quote, isn't there? 'Believe in the messenger and you'll believe in the message'."

But the messenger liked to keep distance between himself and his players, believing familiarity bred contempt.

In Neil Squires' 2015 book 'The House of Lancaster: How England Rugby was Reinvented' - part biography and part examination of his leadership - it was recalled how the Leeds Academy coach never invited any player to his family home, even though it was situated close to the training ground.

Players were there to work with, not socialise with, but Lancaster's achievements in Leeds and later with the England Saxons and Under-20s team did not go unnoticed.

Lancaster was all about team ethic and, as Johnson's tenure ended amid farce and fractions within the squad, his appointment from temporary to permanent basis was almost inevitable in provided something different to the past.

England ended the 2012 RBS 6 Nations Championship runners-up and were denied a Grand Slam title the following year when Wales demolished them in Cardiff on the final weekend.

Indeed, England were to finish runners-up in every one of Lancaster's four Six Nations campaigns but the foundations seemed solid ahead of the 2015 World Cup.

Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley were ruled out of the World Cup on disciplinary grounds as Lancaster appeared to heed the lessons of four years earlier.

But in the end the 'House of Lancaster' crumbled as he was accused of creating a classroom-orientated environment and failing to trust his leaders.

By the time the World Cup came it was unclear what brand of rugby he wanted to play with an adventurous approach replaced by a conservative one for the crunch pool game with Wales.

England lost to Wales and Australia, the first home nation to make the group stages of a World Cup. Lancaster's fate was sealed.

The name of Sam Burgess will figure large in the Lancaster obituaries as England coach, but it was his indecision which proved fatal and the former rugby league star was only part of that particular story.

Despite a win ratio of 71 per cent, second only to World Cup winner Sir Clive Woodward among the last five England coaches, Lancaster was unable to prove he is worthy of operating at the highest level.

The RFU plans to scour the world in attempting to avoid making the same mistake but, whatever happens, do not expect a Stuart Lancaster clone at Twickenham.

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