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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 23 April, 2019

Stuart Lancaster has to prioritise doing the right things over simply doing things right

“Playing Burgess with Brad Barritt was like a declaration that England won’t be passing the ball”

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

BACK WHEN ENGLAND were knocked out of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, most folk probably hadn’t heard of Stuart Lancaster.

Although he was then coaching the Saxons, and by one measure, the number-two in the RFU’s coaching hierarchy, few would have proclaimed him the top coach in England.

In normal circumstances, being coach of the Saxons wouldn’t have meant so much. It was a good job, but more of a cul-de-sac than a stepping stone. Coaching a big premiership side would have undoubtedly carried much more weight, butt this wasn’t a normal circumstance.

Martin Johnson’s unmerited and hurried promotion to head coach in 2008 had been such a failure, that when it was time to replace him in 2011, the RFU decided it best to do things differently, favouring procedure and patience over populism and personality.

With this new approach, Lancaster was suddenly in contention for the top job, even if he wasn’t anyone’s favourite. Yet because of this, he was also the perfect interim choice. Inoffensive and understated, he would help smooth thing things over from the Johnson era, and keep the seat warm, giving the RFU flexibility to find their man.

Other coaches wouldn’t have accepted such a short-term trial contract, but Lancaster would. The RFU were already his paymaster, so he had nothing to lose. In fact, for him it was the perfect free gamble. With no expectations and English rugby at rock bottom, he was almost certain to gain from the experience, enabling him with an opportunity to keep the job. Improving on the carnage of the 2011 World Cup was always going to be easy. The real question was for how long he could keep doing so.

Since taking over the reigns back in 2011, Lancaster has repetitively professed the importance of culture within the squad. Even in this interview from four years ago, he talks about getting the environment right and how culture precedes performance, but it’s worth pondering whether Lancaster placed too much emphasis on his management philosophy.

Stuart Lancaster before the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO


Not focusing on the outcome in the belief that results will take care of themselves is all well and good, but it’s just an ideology, not an answer. You still need to assess and recalibrate at regular intervals to make sure you’re still on target, and schedule. Imagine a sailor navigating by his gut instead of instruments or even the North Star.

Although some management gurus like Peter Drucker suggest that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, it’s missing the point. It’s not an either/or question, and there’s not just one type of culture. Some teams have winning cultures, while others have drinking cultures.

The type of culture that’s created, is impacted hugely by the leadership, and Lancaster doesn’t seem to be providing it to the level required. Sure, he takes more than his fair share of blame, and less than his fair share of credit, but a leader also has to prioritise doing the right things, over always doing things right.

The latter is a management trait, and although Lancaster has proved adept at managing and playing down expectations, cultures are less malleable to interference, especially if the goal is to inspire rather than just empower.

Of course management is important, and every head coach needs this skill. Organising and running the rest of the coaching staff is not always a frictionless effort. It’s a bit like a CEO trying to control business unit managers within a company.

Individually the scrum coach, attack coach and lineout coach might all be experts and great salespeople, but that doesn’t mean each of their plans are compatible with one another. It’s up to the head coach to see through the fog of persuasion and knit all pieces together coherently.

Britain Rugby WCup England Source: AP/Press Association Images

Lancaster has always been adamant that England were backing youth and building for the future, but after nearly four years and more than forty matches, that future doesn’t seem any closer than it was in 2011.

Yes, he has helped the squad, but he has hindered them too. Whether or not you agree with his omissions of Manu Tuilagi and Steffon Armitage, if the roles were reversed and Michael Cheika had been coaching England last weekend, both players would likely have been on the pitch, and probably winning too.

England lost out for many reasons, but one of the more obvious ones is that they were a team out of balance.

Against Wales, the decision to play Sam Burgess was perplexing. Everyone was talking about him as a man, which should have been a warning sign nobody was talking about him as a player. Playing Burgess with Brad Barritt was like a declaration that England won’t be passing the ball if at all possible.

Equally, not having a genuine open-side flanker to counteract the Australian pairing of Michael Hooper and David Pocock was just as damning. Or course, all teams can’t be great at everything, but the coach should ensure a broad range of attributes on the pitch. Some things always go unforeseen, and the surest way to dynamically find solutions is with diverse skillsets available. Too much of something is often just as crippling as too little of anything. Balance is key, and even that is a moving target as well.

There’s no doubt that Lancaster has been brave and believed firmly in his methods, but like Mart Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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About the author:

Eoghan Hickey  / 

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