He”s spoken to Flower and Pearce to help him sort out England… for caretaker Stuart Lancaster the clock is TICKING
No wonder Stuart Lancaster is working 16 hours a day. No wonder he couldn’t entirely switch off from rugby on Christmas Day. No wonder he is criss-crossing the country and cramming in trips to so many matches. Time is against him.
For England’s caretaker head coach, the deafening sound in his ears is the clock ticking, fast and relentless. He just hopes that it is — or soon will be — pointing in the right direction.
‘I use the analogy that every team has a life cycle and the top teams manage to continually stay at a peak, like Manchester United,’ he said.
Looking forward: Stuart Lancaster will lead England into the Six Nations
‘The cycle is on the face of a clock — with a team at its peak at 12 o’clock and at its lowest point at 6 o’clock. Teams are constantly evolving, growing, peaking, maintaining and sometimes they tip over the edge, wither and die, so a new team has to emerge.
‘We are a new team emerging on the performance clock. It takes a long time to build a team, but I think by the end of the Six Nations we can be moving ourselves back towards the top of that performance clock.’
For all the recent talk in English rugby of hitting ‘rock bottom’, that was more a reflection of the RFU in crisis, rather than the national team. In Lancaster’s mind, England are not at their lowest ebb.
‘I don’t think we are at six o’clock by any means,’ he said. ‘If you win 10 of your last 13 Tests and win the Six Nations championship, you have the basis of a good team.’
Nevertheless, the former Leeds coach has inherited a monumental mess. In the wake of the World Cup, Martin Johnson resigned as England manager, then came the damaging leaked reports which revealed internal unrest, divisions and recriminations.
Since then, all the coaches who worked under Johnson — with the honourable exception of Graham Rowntree — have left, voluntarily or reluctantly.
On December 8, Lancaster was placed in charge of an interim coaching team also including Andy Farrell of Saracens. Little more than a month later — 11 days from now — he has to name a squad for the Six Nations.
That explains in part why he has hit the ground running in a quest to make maximum effort for maximum impact. Yet, such commitment is also just in his nature.
Interim government: Lancaster with forwards coach Graham Rowntree and new backs coach Andy Farrell
So far in his new capacity, he has attended eight matches in person and he will be on Tyneside for Newcastle v Northampton on Saturday. He has held talks with all the Aviva Premiership directors of rugby, addressed RFU staff and the board, and also had meetings with various high-ranking figures from other sports as he seeks further inspiration for England’s revival. He relishes the graft.
‘In the last year, I’ll have done about 40,000 miles in the car, doing the regional academy manager job, national age-grade teams and the Saxons,’ he said.
‘That gives me plenty of thinking time, or time on the phone. Recently there have been a lot of miles, but I’m not complaining. I’ve always been a hard worker. I’m probably working about 14 or 16 hours a day at the moment.
‘Generally, I will get up early, do a couple of hours work, go for a run then my day starts. But I don’t burn the candle at both ends — I tend to go to bed early as well.’
Christmas Day in the Lancaster household in Leeds saw Stuart relax — slightly. He didn’t turn on his laptop or make any work-related calls, but he didn’t put the job right out of his mind either.
‘I didn’t actually do anything,’ he said. ‘I did think about rugby but I didn’t let on to anyone else that I was thinking about it! I watched the super tries on Sky, league and union, so that was my rugby diet for the day.
‘I didn’t get back from Northampton until late on Christmas Eve so I just wrapped a few presents and went to bed.
‘My wife, Nina, has been very supportive. I probably owe her a holiday, in fact, we’ve got one booked for February. We are meant to be going to Tenerife but now I have the Wales game that week! The family are still going though.’
Top talent: Lancaster helped bring through elite young players for MartinJohnson and John Wells
Prior to taking on the England salvage operation, Lancaster was a regular at local club West Park in Leeds, where his children — 11-year-old daughter Sophie and 10-year-old son Dan — play junior rugby.
There, he would help out as an assistant coach, but it’s hardly surprising that he has struggled to make it along on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings of late. He was there the night before the RFU announced his appointment, but kept the news to himself.
There have been endless messages of support from those the 42-year-old has come into contact with through time spent as a PE teacher or coaching schools, district and age-grade rugby.
Lancaster cherishes this grass-roots backing, but he has also savoured and been taken aback by the weight of goodwill from other sports. At a recent event, he was overwhelmed by words of encouragement and his intention is to tap into the expertise of so many well-wishers.
‘I have recently spoken to Andy Flower (England cricket coach), Stuart Pearce (England U21 football manager) and Dave Brailsford (British Cycling performance director),’ he said.
‘We would be naive not to use the knowledge that exists in other English and British sports which are successful.
‘The feedback I’ve had from other sports — whether it was a phone call from Stuart Pearce when I first got the job, to Tony Smith the (former) England rugby league coach, to Jamie Peacock the England rugby league captain, to Hugh Morris, the England cricket managing director — shows that everyone is passionate about English sport doing well and want England rugby to do well.
‘We are one of the major sports in the country’s psyche and everyone wants to help us get back on track.’
Lancaster’s immediate objective is to harness this support by inviting two high-profile sporting figures from outside rugby to address his squad during the pre-Six Nations training camp at the end of January.
Miserable: England”s last game was their World Cup quarter-final defeat against France
Rather than being in Portugal again, this time the camp will be at home, most likely in Yorkshire, to make it easy for guest speakers to attend and to ensure that the weather reflects what England will face against Scotland at Murrayfield on February 4.
The other key item on the agenda at the training camp is a short, sharp, potentially brutal, review of what went wrong at the World Cup. In Lancaster’s mind, this must be addressed and dealt with before a line can be drawn in the sand. It will be a cleansing exercise, designed to remove any trace of bitterness and tension caused by the leaked reports.
‘A bit like when you have a poor game, it is remiss of the coach not to review it and learn from it,’ he said. ‘But you don’t want to dwell on it for too long.
‘Certainly, going into the camp, there will be a period of review within one of the meetings, but I want to go from reviewing it to identifying the lessons and solutions, then say: “This is the behaviour we expect in future”.
‘I see that happening early in the week, then we move on. I’m confident that, by the end of the camp, the mindset will have changed from the frustrations of the World Cup to the excitement of the Six Nations.’
There is considerable excitement when Lancaster considers the array of talent at his disposal, so much so that he insists ‘I won’t name names’, only to cave in within seconds and mention Northampton flanker Calum Clark (left) and the loosehead prop contenders Joe Marler, Alex Corbisiero and Matt Mullan.
He acknowledges Mike Brown’s fine form at full back for Harlequins but Ben Foden’s continuing form there too, plus the competing claims of Nick Abendanon, Olly Morgan and Rob Miller. ‘That is one of our most competitive positions,’ he said.
He is animated when considering the Big Game collision in midfield between Jordan Turner-Hall and Brad Barritt.While he is ready to trust in youth, Lancaster rejects the notion that awhole team of tyros will be pitched into the frenzy of a Calcutta Cup match at the start of the championship.
The man in charge: Stuart Lancaster was revealed as England”s caretaker coach at the start of December
‘People have this perception that we’re going to throw together a very young, inexperienced side but actually, a lot of the young guys like Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes are pretty experienced now as international players,’ he says.
‘They have been to a World Cup and played in the Six Nations.’
Whatever the final composition of his squad — and he refused to confirm whether Mike Tindall has been told that his time is up — Lancaster is cautiously upbeat about what England can achieve.
‘There is no reason why we can’t go into the Six Nations with a realistic ambition of winning it,’ he said.
‘We have a fantastic group of players and they are excited about what is coming up, so there is nothing for us to fear.
‘But what creates results is strong team culture, technical and tactical cohesion and your best players being fit and in form.
‘We’ve got a long way to go to get those three bits right and we’ve only got two weeks to do it.’
There it is again, the sound of that ticking clock. For Lancaster and his assistants, the volume will increase as the weeks go by, with the RFU seemingly coveting a long-term coaching collaboration between Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith.
For the temporary line-up to have any hope of earning a longer-term brief, England must perform superbly in the Six Nations.
The man in charge for now has no idea whether he has a chance of keeping the job, but he will move heaven and earth to try.
‘I couldn’t tell you if I have a realistic shot,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what the process is.
‘I’m sure when we get into the New Year, things will unfold, but I’ve always had the philosophy that if you work hard every day to be the best you can be, then everything else takes care of itself.’