Stuart Lancaster’s time in charge of England ended with scathing criticism from both the media and fans alike, but now that the dust has settled, is it time to re-evaluate his tenure and what he achieved with England?
Lancaster’s time in charge of England ended where it began: a miserable World Cup curtailed with an early exit. Back in 2011, Martin Johnson took his England team out of a challenging pool by narrowly defeating a determined Argentina side and a resilient Scotland outfit.
Yet Johnson’s World Cup was blighted by constant media scrutiny of the squad’s behaviour off the pitch and their time in the tournament came to an abrupt end after losing to an inconsistent France team that had already suffered humiliation against Tonga in the pool stages.
In 2012 Lancaster had been given the England job on an interim basis whilst the RFU searched for a new permanent head coach. He gutted the existing squad and brought in a raft of new players, with seven making their debuts against Scotland at Murrayfield. It was a surprisingly successful first tournament for Lancaster and his squad, where they narrowly lost out on the Championship, losing to World Cup semi-finalists Wales.
Wins against Ireland at Twickenham and France in Paris meant Lancaster was eventually given the job on a full-time basis ahead of the more experienced Nick Mallett, who had previously coached the Springboks and Italy at international level.
Fast forward to 2015 and England had lost twice at home to both Wales and Australia. Their World Cup was in tatters and all the hard work of the past four years had gone to waste. But whilst Lancaster’s England team failed so miserably at the World Cup, should we be so unilaterally negative in our assessment of his time in charge?
Although England never won a title under Lancaster, he completely altered the make-up of the squad and brought through huge numbers of new players. Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tom Youngs, Luke Cowan Dickie, Kieran Brookes, Henry Thomas, Geoff Parling, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Matt Kvesic, Ben Morgan, Billy Vunipola, Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell, Freddie Burns, George Ford, Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni, Anthony Watson, Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond, Brad Barritt, Henry Slade, Billy Twelvetrees, Alex Goode. All these players were brought through under Stuart Lancaster.
Despite the events at the conclusion of 2015, Eddie Jones has kept faith with a large chunk of the existing squad and a number of the players that were involved in the World Cup squad are now starting for England. Is it a coincidence that Jones has stuck with these players? No, Lancaster has laid the foundations for a young and exciting squad that come 2019 will be experienced and ready to take on the world.
Moreover, Lancaster helped to nurture improved relations between club and country. Whilst in the past it has seemed that England and the Premiership clubs were pulling in opposition directions, there is now a clearer pathway for both to succeed.
Unfortunately England does not benefit from a professional rugby structure that feeds from grassroots up to international level as is the case in many other countries, but it is clear that clubs feel more of a responsibility now to develop young English talent, which is manifesting itself through improved U-18 and U-20 performances and more younger players making it at the elite level.
Additionally, Lancaster made England a consistent team that could compete again with the southern hemisphere. The Red Rose were always a difficult side to beat, but what Lancaster could not do was take them to the next level where they would win when it really mattered. Time and time again England put themselves in positions to win Championships only to only just miss out. 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015: every time England were almost there but not quite.
Lancaster’s England also beat every major team in the world except for South Africa, although they did draw with them back in 2012 (a dour 14-14 result). Only three teams beat New Zealand between 2012 and 2015: Australia, South Africa and… England. This illustrates the capacity that England have.
Now Jones has taken charge and he is looking to take them to that next level, to that level of performance that always eluded Lancaster. The next three games in the Six Nations against Ireland, Wales and France will show just how good a coach Jones is.
After all, if Lancaster – who was so horribly derided after an atrocious World Cup – can get England to second four years in a row, then surely Jones, the ‘super coach’ as he has been labelled in certain sections of the press, can take England one step further?
Stuart Lancaster will always be marked by two troughs: England’s abject performance against Wales in 2013, losing 30-3, and 2015’s World Cup. But let’s not forget the peaks he had as coach, and let’s remember that he had some considerable peaks in his time in charge. Lancaster took England as far as he could and he has laid the foundations for a brighter future. That should not be forgotten.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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