England’s mess bigger than Lancaster

Date published: November 12 2015

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Stuart Lancaster leaving his role as England head coach felt inevitable the longer the wait went on for word from Twickenham on his future. Now the RFU are starting again…again.

It's a credit to Lancaster that he leaves English rugby in a far better place than the rotten mess of 2011. Young talents have been developed and a sense of worth in playing for England has been restored. He has been honest, passionate and worked tirelessly. One of the good guys. 

He also did so in spite of a system that hinders the national side, just as it did for his predecessors.

England travelling to New Zealand to play a Test without a core of their top players given they had bashed each other to bits in the Premiership final less than a week beforehand seems more ridiculous now than ever. Amateur scheduling in the age of professionalism.

None of Lancaster's players were ever able to get the same level of rest allocated to top All Blacks in the middle of the Super Rugby season, because the RFU and Premiership Rugby don't work as closely together as they should do.

Even if he wanted to pick Steffon Armitage – which, as the figurehead of English rugby, he was berated for not doing – he couldn't have done so because of the RFU's overseas policy. 

All of those excuses however are not sufficent to forgive England's lack of killer instinct. They choked in the biggest games and Lancaster's lost his nerve with his selections.

Lancaster has the second-best winning percentage of any England coach at 61 percent, but it's the lack of results in key matches than have ended his reign.

More importantly, restoring national pride counts for very little when you're forced to accept that unwanted tag of being the first ever World Cup hosts to miss their own knockout stage party. And what a party – a once in a generation moment in English sport, lost before the heat was really turned up.

Four second-place finishes in the Six Nations before the tournament were being viewed as a semi-achievement. Now they're a pattern of failure. England came undone under Lancaster too often when it mattered most.

The culture he worked so hard to build since 2012 was starting to crack with stories of failed stock tips and disharmony over the Sam Burgess saga even before Lancaster met with RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie on Tuesday.

Ritchie spoke bullishly at the following day's press conference about money being no object in the RFU's search for the best possible coach.

Having appointed Lancaster, a coach with no prior Test experience, to replace Martin Johnson, also with no prior experience, England and Ritchie absolutely cannot make that mistake again.

There are coaches in the Premiership with promise such as Rob Baxter, but aside from briefly assisting England in Argentina he can hardly claim to boast a knowledge of Test rugby.

Placing emphasis on "international experience" was Ritchie's way of saying England would look overseas to appoint a foreign coach for the first time and will break the bank to get him. Western Province, the new employers of Eddie Jones, and Montpellier, who Jake White brings to Twickenham tonight to face Harlequins in the Challenge Cup, will have paid attention.

Coaching England may be the most lucrative role in international rugby but it comes with a unique series of pitfalls and the expectation to end a torrid run of one Six Nations title in 12 years.

Lancaster will not be around to see it. Opting for a "clean break" between the two parties makes practical sense but the sense is that down the line he has a role to play within the RFU based on his track record of developing England's younger players.

Lancaster might not be the man to lead England as head coach, but whoever is will have to fight to overcome a current set-up where it feels as though so many off-field factors are working against the success of the national side.

Lurching towards a foreign experienced candidate might seem like the obvious course of action, but surely more damning is the lack of a ready-made English coach to make the step up.

No one is exactly calling for one of Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree or Mike Catt to take the leap. There are prospects out there in the shape of Rob Baxter, Dean Ryan, Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, while a role for Shaun Edwards surely has to be found now. 

Opting to ditch Lancaster now is understandable given his position has become untenable, but it's also just the short-term solution to a wider malaise.

A deeper period of self-reflection focusing on how to truly give England the best possible chance of success, by both the RFU and the Premiership clubs, and swift movement to bring in the mystery "best possible coach" are both now required with haste, given the Six Nations starts in 12 weeks.

by Ben Coles

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