Perhaps inevitably at this time of year, I spent the bulk of yesterday afternoon watching England v South Africa at Twickenham on BT Sports and then Scotland v New Zealand on the BBC with a sizeable family grouping, having been detailed – as the resident female cook – the prior task of preparing a cauldron of Irish stew for lunch.
As upon any post-international Sunday, I am sure that rugby or sports fans possessed of the inclination will have already obtained their fill of match reports and analysis elsewhere, I am sure they will be glad to know that they will receive none today from me.
Instead I shall confine myself to a few brief comments upon the state of the current England squad.
The consistent concern that I have always had about Stuart Lancaster is that, although he is professional, astute, conscientious, hard-working, thoughtful, determined and as steeped in honest integrity as the day is long, he is ‘not quite officer material’. In short, whilst one-to-one he may be an inspiring character for all I know (I should stress that I’ve never met him), in his press conferences and media interviews he comes across as an earnest but ‘painting-by-numbers’ sergeant major.
He’s probably read every book ever written on coaching, rugby skills, tactics, training, nutrition and preparation … and consulted with every great elite coach he can lay his hands upon … but none of these compensate for lack of leadership charisma – perhaps the one thing in life that cannot be taught or learned.
After the travails of the Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and Martin Johnson years, the one thing that the RFU correctly determined was that they needed a safe pair of hands and Lancaster is a safe pair of hands above all else.
However admirable the England elite rugby culture under Lancaster has become – in terms of structure and core beliefs of the squad, he has scarcely put a foot wrong – the bottom line is that the only thing that matters – and the standard by which each regime will be judged by history – is the England team’s results.
The truth is that, for all the preparation and huffing and puffing, the blooding of impressive youngsters with international potential and the occasional indisputable outstanding performance [best example: the defeat of the All Blacks at Twickenham in November 2012], the Lancaster England team has won no Six Nations tournament and – certainly on current form – has zero chance of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Indeed, frankly, it faces the very real possibility of not making it beyond its starting group.
Lancaster has picked around him a coaching team that is good but not great. Rather like any group of fans sitting in the corner of a pub, it has occasionally tried worthwhile experiments in selection and tactics … but the impression is given that the results have been about as developmental and productive as any selections or tactics proposed by you or me.
When you get to the business end of things, at this stage in proceedings excuses about missing injured players and comforting ‘don’t worry, we’re getting there’ assurances count for very little.
The biggest concern I have at the moment is the recent announcement that the RFU has already extended the contracts of Lancaster and his core coaching staff through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In my view this development is fundamentally flawed.
Firstly, I don’t believe that the Stuart Lancaster regime is capable of winning any Rugby World Cup.
Secondly, giving any management group advance security of tenure beyond its first four-year cycle is a mistake.
Unless perhaps, that is, paying off a long-term contract – in order to get rid of them and bring in a new regime that can shake up proceedings – is seen as all part of a plan (e.g. to compensate handsomely those departing as they leave the building).