Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Graham Jenkins at the Stade de France
March 11, 2012
Stuart Lancaster celebrates England's win - will he soon have further reason to celebrate? © Getty Images
Enough is enough. No more mind games, word games or patriot games. Just give him the job.
What more does Stuart Lancaster have to do to warrant a show of faith from the Rugby Football Union. Perhaps if he skipped the charter flight home from Paris and opted to walk across the Channel then maybe the powers that be at English rugby's HQ would realise they had somebody special in their ranks.
Not only has he restored the reputation of the national side and lifted the gloom that descended during the Rugby World Cup, he has repaired the team's battered belief, re-focused the squad and offered powerful reminders to his charges of what an honour it is to play for your country. In addition, he has nurtured a priceless work ethic and but for one moment of magic, that saw Wales' Scott Williams rip the ball from lock Courtney Lawes and claim a memorable try, his side could be looking forward to playing for a Grand Slam against Ireland next weekend.
They are far from the finished product but let us not forget that Lancaster has only been in charge for a few short months. Despite that obvious constraint, tactically they have shown they can stand toe-to-toe with a Welsh side some way further along in terms of development and a French team that almost gate-crashed New Zealand's World Cup party a few short months ago.
The Twickenham faithful are clearly convinced going by the decibel level at HQ during the Wales clash but have the suits been won over? On such evidence, it would take a special kind of arrogance on their part to dismiss Lancaster in the hope that a hitherto unnamed coach can conjure a similar winning blend.
It is clearly unwise to judge Lancaster's ability to do the job solely on the back of the five games that make up his very public audition - while also being unfair on his rivals who do not have such a practical element to bolster their application. But such has been Lancaster's impact that it is impossible not to be swayed by the results on and off the field. A refusal to give credit where it is due smacks of a dangerous assumption that a certain level of success is inevitable - no matter who was in charge.
The interesting figure in all this is Nick Mallett. The former South Africa and Italy coach is widely considered to be Lancaster's main rival for the permanent post although there has been no official confirmation of his application landing on the mat at Rugby House.
However, reports from South Africa, where he has been re-charging his batteries having parted company with the Azzurri after the World Cup, suggest he has gone through official channels to express his interest in the role. The rumour mill will also have us believe that Mallett, infinitely more experienced at the elite level than Lancaster, has long been the chosen one - dating back to the RFU's initial attempts to fill the void left by Martin Johnson after the World Cup.
His silence over the last couple of months, seemingly out of respect for the process and Lancaster, may have been a wise choice given his rival's improving rating. What is his mindset now? The England job is no doubt an attractive prospect for any coach and Mallett is not shy of a challenge but will he relish stepping into the void at this stage? While taking on an England side on the rise is a major draw, Mallett will not have considered having to win a PR battle to defend his appointment over a much-liked caretaker boss. Dare he offer 'a different way' of doing things? What are the odds on Mallett quietly withdrawing his interest in the role in the face of this powerful wave of adulation?
The RFU are determined to have a coach boasting the required pedigree and experience in place in order to ensure a successful assault on the 2015 World Cup, a tournament that they are hosting, but why look so far ahead? The RFU have already expressed their desire to learn from New Zealand when it comes to the structure and management of the elite game so why not follow their lead when it comes to the top job? Graham Henry operated under a two-year deal throughout his tenure and that performance-related set-up didn't turn out too bad for the All Blacks did it?
A two-year outlook may been seen as a bold re-think by those intent on nailing down a 'four-year strategy' and putting the building blocks in place for the visit of the rest of the world but such a move would surely ease the pressure on all those involved? The perceived 'gamble' on Lancaster would be minimised and should his blueprint for success suddenly falter then the RFU can splash the cash and give someone else two years and 20+ Test matches to gear up for the tournament.
Not convinced? Take a look at Scotland's current predicament. Coach Andy Robinson was hailed as the saviour of Scottish rugby not so long ago having steered his side to seven victories and a draw in his first 14 games in charge - a run that included victories of Australia, South Africa and Argentina. The Scottish Rugby Union swiftly rewarded him with a new four-year deal that tied him to the team beyond the 2015 World Cup only for the rot to set in. The Scots failed to deliver on the World Cup stage - failing to reach the quarter-final for the first time - and are currently riding a run of six straight losses and a woeful two victories in 14 Six Nations matches with Robinson at the helm. Adding to their woe is a recent slump to a record-equalling low in the IRB rankings behind those rugby powerhouses of Samoa and Tonga. Would a coach of any of their Six Nations rivals still be in charge with a similar record?
England need to be careful. Not so long ago they let a talented coach escape their grasp in the form of Shaun Edwards who, having committed his coaching future to Wales, is now poised to add another Grand Slam to an already impressive rugby CV. Are the Rugby Football Union prepared to let another forward-thinker ply his trade for another union? Lancaster's achievements will not have escaped the attention of England's rivals - or the leading clubs in the world - and the RFU must be wary that a decision to overlook Lancaster may also lead to another key vacancy - the development role that he left to answer a higher call.
The key question for many is - are the RFU are prepared to roll the dice with Lancaster? So much depends on the successful staging of a World Cup and a successful England side is a key part of that plan. Dare they risk wasting the £80m World Cup hosting fee on a Test match rugby rookie? Failure to generate a worthy legacy could be so costly for the game in country. But consider this. Would it be an even bigger gamble cutting Lancaster loose?
If they were that concerned about his credentials then he would not have been trusted with the interim appointment and everything he has done since that day has only strengthened his case - be it the cast iron grip on off-field discipline or the decision to hand a 20-year-old Owen Farrell the No.10 shirt. Farrell made a seamless step up to the Test match stage and he is not the only one to have proven his doubters wrong.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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