Lancaster Goes, But the Real Culprits Remain

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I’m relived. Are you? After three and a half years of incredulity I can finally change the record. I thought Stuart Lancaster was a bizarre appointment to begin with – a Mike Bassett type fairy tale but nowhere near as funny – and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to have my fears confirmed.

Lancaster is a good man by all accounts – and I know plenty of people with first hand experience of his honest and genuine nature – but he never had the credentials to handle such a big job. It was always going to end in disaster. I feel genuine sympathy for him.

Lancaster was given the opportunity to lead his country into a home world cup – his dream job – so nobody can blame him for accepting the challenge. He did his very best, and made some profound changes off the pitch, but his tactics were naïve and his nerve failed him under pressure.

It’s hardly Lancaster’s fault though. He should never have been put in this position to begin with. The real culprits are the RFU suits who decided to ignore tangible qualifications and go with misplaced gut instinct instead – for that is what it took to appoint someone with so little experience of top-level rugby.

Make no mistake about it. It’s the RFU who blew the World Cup, not Stuart Lancaster, Sam Burgess, or any other scapegoat. Yet the men at the top all seem to be keeping their jobs. How sad and predictable.

Although we’ve heard that Lancaster is leaving his post by ‘mutual consent’, some partings are more mutual than others. He said he was keen to stick around after the World Cup – something I found disappointing and quite astonishing in the circumstances – but after a rather lengthy review, which involved discussions with players and other stakeholders, he’s decided to step down. Or rather he was given the opportunity to step down. At least the RFU let him leave with some dignity.

A few nuggets emerged from the RFU press conference this afternoon. For starters it’s clear that Lancaster no longer enjoyed the support of all the players – hardly a surprise after his handling of Burgess and the exclusion of Luther Burrell. We heard that some players wanted him to stay (Robshaw anyone?) but others had lost faith.

We also learned that the RFU want to appoint a quality international coach to succeed Lancaster. If only they’d realised this was kind of important four years ago. Nationality, apparently, is not an issue this time. At least they’re being open-minded.

Rather ominously, however, Ian Ritchie and Bill Beaumont admitted that the search for a new coach may ‘take time’. Why do the wheels turn so slowly at the RFU? It was procrastination that led to Lancaster’s appointment in the first place.

With all Lancaster’s assistants retaining their positions for now, a cynic might foresee Andy Farrell becoming caretaker for the Six Nations. And what happens if Farrell leads England to a few wins? Give Farrell a four-year contract and then extend his deal until 2023 I suppose? Perhaps we shouldn’t joke.

Before I ask who you’d like to see as Lancaster’s permanent successor – and it seems most of the leading candidates are indeed from overseas – let’s just examine the broader context. Today’s press conference revealed that Ian Ritchie will have the ‘full support’ of the RFU board to appoint Lancaster’s successor. Erm, why?

Ian Ritchie was the man who hired Lancaster – one of the most head-scratching appointments I can recall in all my time watching sport. What on earth has Ritchie done to earn the RFU board’s trust? What on earth has he done to earn the public’s trust?

Once again English rugby has failed on a most fundamental level: before appointing a new coach, the RFU needed to install the right people to hire the right coach. Instead we have the same person – a person with a background in law and the media (and football believe it or not). This simply isn’t a rugby person, people.

Ian Ritchie is a businessman. He’s not a rugby man. He might know a lot about the politics of rugby, but he knows very little about the actual game. Let’s hope the new coach can breeze through his interviews, establish a position of strength, and then put Ritchie back in his box.

Talking of which, who would you like to see as the new man in charge? Quality English candidates are thin on the ground. Northampton’s Jim Mallinder is a strong candidate, but somehow he’s never totally convinced. Rob Baxter has performed wonders at Exeter, but much of this has resulted from building Exeter as a club from the ground-up. Being England head coach is a somewhat different brief.

In my humble opinion, the best English candidate would be Dean Ryan – simply because he talks so much sense and commands huge respect within the game. However, the broader public are probably unaware of the fantastic job he’s doing at my club (Worcester). I don’t think his appointment would go down well in the shires. He’s also probably burned his bridges at the RFU by highlighting some of their failings in his role as a pundit on Sky.

Consequently, I believe it’s inevitable that the next coach will be from overseas. Warren Gatland would be the dream candidate, but I doubt he’d leave Wales. Ditto Ireland’s Joe Schmidt. Vern Cotter might be a more realistic candidate, but we don’t know what his intentions are. He hasn’t been with Scotland that long.

That leaves a shortlist of Eddie Jones, Eddie Jones again, Nick Mallett, Jake White (who should have got the job instead of Lancaster) or possibly a dark horse like John Mitchell. Take your pick folks.

James Morgan

19 Comments

  1. Many thoughts:

    1) Dean Ryan? What has he won?

    2) That said, I don’t think the coach is actually where the problem is. There are deeper faultlines in the English game. I’ll hit on that in a separate comment if I have time.

    3) Of the coaches with stature everyone is clamouring for and seeming availability I think it’s down to Eddie Jones, Jake White, Nick Mallett, Wayne Smith. Of these I’d be hoping for Smith, but he may prefer to hold out for a chance at the NZ job. I’d also like them to consider more forward-looking choices like Shaun Edwards or Conor O’Shea.

  2. No chance of getting Waybe Smith. He has no interest in taking a top job.

    Morgsie – where is Rob Andrew in all of this? There are so many things to debate next time we see each other over beer, Allstars dinner?

  3. Not fond of Kitson, to my mind he’s spent many years helping distract from various problems, but this is a good sentence on RFU failings:

    “Since then the Premiership clubs have grown ever stronger, the union has too often wrung its hands and every head coach has been doomed from the outset. Too many games, brief off-seasons, ruinous tour scheduling, commercial overload, pompous hashtag-heavy marketing, too much focus on the gym, not enough on skills.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2015/nov/11/england-head-coach-rfu-stuart-lancaster

  4. James, whilst Lanny will look back with some regrets, your piece seems to absolve players of any blame. For me he had no world class players, some with potential and importantly a team bereft of leaders. The players on the pitch threw that Wales game away. There was no shame in losing to that Oz side. It’s hypothetical but I’m not sure who would have done much better.
    In terms of the future, Farrel should be immediately relieved of his duties. Also I may accuse you of some inconsistency pushing Ryan forward…a man who hasn’t won anything, despite the resources available at Gloucs, who talks a good game – sounds like Lanny! 😉

    • Hi Yorkie. None of the English candidates are ideal. I’m not pushing for Ryan.

      Having said that, Ryan has far more experience than Lancaster had though. He’s been a premiership coach for a decade, and finished top of the premiership (although they didn’t win the play offs) during that time. Gloucester haven’t reached those heights since. He’s also impressed as a coach with Scotland and made an immediate impact there. He also played for England.

      Ryan has been around the block and top players wants to play for his clubs – Donnacha O’Callaghan and Phil Dowsom being the latest examples. It’s a bit different from being just a youth coach at Leeds, and then coaching them for two mixed seasons. Sorry! 🙂

      Ryan would not be my choice – he’s far too valuable to Worcester – but he’s the best of a bad lot as far as the English candidates go. However, only the international coaches have the credentials necessary.

      Who would be your choice? I’m torn.

      • Used to think Ryan was ok but failed to deliver with significant resources. In defence of Lanny he never had the resources available at Leeds, Caddick had pulled the funds by that stage which helped Davies build the side to Premiership level for a short period.
        I’m torn too on options and I thought it was telling this morning that Cueto provided very little insight both on radio and TV. I’m not sure we could entice him but Schmidt would be an interesting coversation. A lot of others like White don’t excite me -seems like yesterday’s man touting himself heavily.

    • Japan didn’t really have any world class players either, but somehow they managed to win more group games than England did.

      I will admit that I know very little about Rugby, Union or League. So anything I say regarding England’s performance comes from a background of ignorance – but can anyone honestly say that England had poorer players than Japan did at the start of the World Cup?

    • He does seem to go against the grain a lot. I imagine he just feels a little silly for backing the wrong horse so strongly. Many people in the rugby media were initially taken in by Lancaster’s charm. Few were sceptical. He’s probably just trying to salvage something from the wreckage.

      • He wrote an extraordinary love-letter to the Lancaster coaching set-up about a year or so ago. All the stuff about the Victoria Cross and the war veterans giving them talks. I thought it was mental at the time but now it’s been proved to be absolute bollocks.

        The crazy thing is, he repeats a lot of it now and doesn’t seem to realize quite how extraordinary it all sounds – getting the players’ mothers to write them letters to tell them how it makes them feel that they play for England, all the war veteran stuff.

        In the comments he describes it as ‘just a neutral write through of events’.

        He was the same with Flower.

        • I agree. The prism through which he’s interpreting events is quite odd. I notice how he started off by describing trips to Edinburgh and Rome and ‘tricky’ (they’re actually the two easiest away trips in the Six Nations) and then praises England’s performances in those games as ‘brave’ even though he admits they were ‘scrappy’. He turns average / poor performances in two easy games into some kind of positive. Just bizarre.

          I agree with you re: mothers writing letters too. It’s just so cheesy. It’s right up there with Ted Dexter getting the England team to sing the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ but substituting the word ‘Christian’ with ‘Gower’s’. Any player with half an intellect would see it as madness. Maybe I’m just an old cynic, but I’d immediately lose faith in my boss if he employed such cringeworthy techniques. It’s just cliched and daft.

          I just hate all this stuff about ‘culture’. It’s just nonsense. 99% of professional sports teams ‘work hard’ and play for the shirt. It’s the minimum one can expect. It’s just window dressing. All it amounts to is giving players a kick up the arse and reminding them that they’re playing for their country.

          This kind of stuff should simply be done as part of a broader team talk – not made the foundation for an entire ethos etc. What really matters is a coach’s ability to motivate players, get the tactics right, and change things during games if it’s going wrong.

          Anyone, even people who know nothing about a particular sport, can speak in buzz words and create some nebulous culture. I’m sure it was all well intentioned, but I would feel incredibly patronised as a professional if I had been part of that group.

    • I really wouldn’t go back to Woodward. He was a man of his time whose real skill was modernising English rugby. The rest of the world has now caught up. People forget that we were dire in the year after the World Cup, and we seemed loath to move on and evolve the team. Woodward left at exactly the right time, and I’m not sure what good it would do to bring him back. The Lions tour he ran to NZ was a complete shambles and a disaster, and he’s done precisely nothing in rugby since – that’s an absence of ten years now.

  5. man in a barrel on

    I think what annoyed me most about the Lancaster era was that, after 3 years of almost-success, he was given a 6 year contract extension in 2014! I bet he has a great severance package…despite achieving not very much. The way he threw Burgess into the mix was eerily reminiscent of the way Moores picked Ballance for the World Cup and then Trott as opener in the West Indies. The reversion to Farrell at fly-half, after the success of George Ford in the 6 Nations was similar to the way Johnson reverted to Wilkinson after the success of Toby Flood in 2011. It seems that whereas Downton and Clarke were fawning on Lancaster, he was looking at the failures of English cricket and striving to copy them.

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