The Pursuits Interview: Stuart Lancaster

It can sometimes be hard to remember that, until relatively recently, rugby was an amateur sport. Today, professionalism is entrenched in the national game, bringing with it an attention to detail that was unheard of 20 years ago when getting 15 men on to the pitch seemed detail enough.

In the late 1980s, Ireland came over to play England and the bar in their team hotel ran out of Guinness before the match kicked off. When it was all over, they drank some more, climbed on to the plane still wearing their clothes from the night before, had a quick kip and then went back to work. It was great ... except, of course, that England rarely won anything. They never expected to. That wasn’t the point of it all. Even when the first World Cup arrived in 1987 they didn’t approach it with overwhelming seriousness, and turned up wearing Reagan and Gorbachev masks.

By the time the 2003 World Cup came along, all of that had changed. The rugby world spun on its axis as England lifted the Webb Ellis Cup under head coach Sir Clive Woodward. But that was almost 10 years ago and England exited the last World Cup in the quarter finals, dogged by tales of over-indulgence and crass behaviour off the pitch. What’s next for the national side? England are set to host the World Cup in 2015, and rugby sevens becomes an Olympic sport in 2016. This November, England will face Fiji, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand at Twickenham. There’s never been a better time to become the new head coach of England.

Meet Stuart Lancaster – the no-nonsense 42-year-old in whose hands the immediate future of England rugby rests. He was brought in as England’s interim head coach after Martin Johnson resigned following the disappointment of the 2011 World Cup, and was made full-time in March. He has had six months in the role, steadying the team and injecting some much-needed humility and old-fashioned values.

“As soon as I came into the side, after the World Cup, I knew I had to get the players’ attitudes right. They needed to think about the shirt and what it means,” he said. “There’s no point in doing anything until you’ve got the culture right. Let me explain the way I think about teams – it’s like baking a cake, you’ve got to get the cake right before you can add the icing. I think, sometimes, that we worry about the ‘icing’ – the detail – when underneath it, things are going fundamentally wrong.

Stuart Lancaster during a training session in South Africa, June 2012

“We had to get back to basics, and to make sure the players were passionate about playing for England and filled with pride. It sounds simple, but I think it was forgotten along the way.”

Lancaster started the process of re-energising the players by asking each player’s family and friends to write letters outlining how they felt when they saw their player in the England shirt. “You can imagine how powerful it was for the players to receive something like that. It was the best way I could get the players to understand that it’s not just about them – it’s about everyone around them when they play for England. I needed them to understand the responsibility, the pride and the value.”

But he says the most important thing, in the short term, was “to create a strong team culture ... I need players with internal drive and that warrior spirit that shows itself on the pitch when things get tough. If you’ve got that, the score will take care of itself.” The warrior spirit, Lancaster says, is expressed in “the guy who stays on for extra training after everyone else, the guy who works harder in the gym, gets up earlier to train and puts that extra bit of effort in – he’s the guy. He’s what I want.”

Lancaster is unusual as England coach in having not played senior international rugby himself. However, he does have a huge amount of coaching and teaching experience and has worked his way right up through the system from school teacher to coach of the national side via director of rugby at Leeds Carnegie and elite rugby director at the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

“If you’d told me a few years ago I was going to be the England coach, I’d have thought you were nuts,” he says. “I was a school teacher. It’s been quite a journey.” So what does it take? “As well as being technically competent, forward-thinking and good planners, [good coaches] can judge the mood properly – be direct when appropriate, inspire, put their arm around someone’s shoulder, cope with difficult relationships, have good relationship skills and be honest. I also think you need to be able to ask ‘why?’ to be an effective coach. People will ask ‘how?’ and ‘what?’, but few people ask ‘why?’ Why is the culture the way it is? Until you know why something’s happening, it’s very hard to change it.”

Stuart Lancaster with captain Chris Robshaw after beating Ireland 30-9, securing second place for England

So the big questions, then – are England going to win the World Cup in 2015 on home soil, and how are they going to fare against the world superpowers when they arrive at Twickenham in November. “We’re in good shape,” he says. “I think the whole of sport has benefited from the Olympic Games and looking at the achievements made there. The power that a nation behind a team can have was apparent. We’ll have all that behind us in 2015 and that will make a big difference. I just need to make sure the best players are the best they can be by then.

“You know, there are 34 games to go before the World Cup,” he says, warming to his theme. “England has a talented group of players, and there are more talented players on the way up. I’ve looked at the balance of youth and experience that is needed within teams to win World Cups and I think having 600 caps in the team provides the right level of experience. It sounds quite clinical and calculated to think of it that way, but I’m the team’s leader, and part of being a leader is having a clear vision for the future … It’s a huge responsibility, but I’m loving it, and I’m confident. Very confident.”

Alison Kervin is a former chief sports feature writer of The Times and the Daily Telegraph and a former editor of Rugby World magazine

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