Jury out on Lancaster
January 25, 2012
Sir Clive Woodward has questioned Stuart Lancaster's credentials © Getty Images
Love him or loathe him you can always rely upon Sir Clive Woodward to tell it like it is and his first utterances on the appointment of Stuart Lancaster as interim England coach are typically perceptive. They also indicate - to me at least - that now the Rugby Football Union has appointed a chief executive he could work with, he has still not ruled out finishing his career with a second coming as rugby supremo at Twickenham.
He used an interview this week, ostensibly about his role as the British Olympic Association's director of sport, to point out that Lancaster has achieved absolutely nothing as yet. It was politely dismissive. "Look, he's spoken a lot of common sense but it's easy to talk common sense - it's all good media work - in the end he will be judged solely on results -considering he's never coached a team at Premiership level he must be thinking how lucky he is - the closer he comes to the first game against Scotland the more he'll realise the other stuff is irrelevant. The relevant stuff is about how his players hit the first rucks and how they use the ball they win."
Not convinced then Clive? It is fair to point out that Woodward's own coaching CV was thin - a short spell in charge at London Irish followed by the assistant's job at Bath - but it struck a chord with me because nearly everybody seems to have welcomed Lancaster as some sort of Messiah when all the evidence points to him being a journeyman.
He has immediately shown himself to be well organised and grounded. The extravagant luxury of Pennyhill Park - a Woodward initiative - has been exchanged for Weetwood Hall - nice but not in the same class - and West Hill Rugby Club just outside Leeds.
His first training week is planned to the last detail. On Wednesday, cycling's David Brailsford and cricket's Hugh Morris will lecture the squad on what it means to be an elite athlete - Woodward would have been the ideal man to do that but that was probably asking too much, too soon. Tomorrow afternoon the players will attend an U13 tournament and coach the teams and in the evening Gary Neville will talk to them about 'what representing the country means'. On Friday, Lancaster will attend a Q&A with 150 local club coaches.
I can see where he is coming from, particularly after the disgraceful behaviour in New Zealand, but all the community and motivational stuff leaves me cold at this stage. I would have thought there were other more pressing matters to attend to such as sorting out a style of play and making sure fitness levels are up to scratch. Wales have opted for a week of really hard work - England need it too.
As Woodward says, it is all good media work and for a man who previously enjoyed being categorised as a doer rather than a talker, Lancaster has certainly opened up to the press. Every rugby correspondent worth his salt had the new-look England squad right almost to a man a week before it was announced. Tom Wood was a 'shoe-in' for the captaincy, until he was injured, and now everybody seems to agree Chris Robshaw is Lancaster's 'captain elect' - all written authoritatively without a 'possibly' or even a 'probably.'
It would be understandable if they were actually outstanding captaincy candidates but I am surprised Lancaster is not playing his cards closer to his chest. Robshaw is neither a great player or, on the evidence of Harlequins' Heineken Cup match against Connacht, a very good decision maker. In filthy conditions his decision to go for a try from a penalty instead of taking the three points on offer arguably cost them the match.
And what is this preoccupation with back-rowers as captain? Richie McCaw, Thierry Dusautoir and Sam Warburton were the stars of the Rugby World Cup and all captained their countries from the back-row, but it is not the ideal position for a skipper. You can certainly lead from the front but you are too involved in everything to step back and make the cool, calm decisions that are sometimes needed.
If Robshaw makes the team he should be totally preoccupied in making the position his own and with virtually no international experience he will have his work cut-out trying to adapt to the change in pace. It may be an old chestnut but I am a firm believer in selecting the captain after the team not the other way round.
Lancaster has certainly set out his stall in his squad selection and I believe he was absolutely right to concentrate on building for the future but the wheels seem to be coming off in English club rugby at exactly the wrong moment. Heavy defeats for Leicester and Northampton plus Harlequins' toothless display - all against Irish provinces - put it all in perspective. With the biggest playing base by far they should always be challenging for the Six Nations but that could be a big ask this year.
I am sure Lancaster will be talking about the opportunity rather than the poisoned chalice but we shall soon see whether he just talks the talk or whether there is real substance to the man. In the meantime I'm with Sir Clive - the jury is out.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh
Huw Richards rewinds to 1864 to mark the birth of Welsh rugby's first authentic star - Arthur Gould