Saturday 16 December 2017

Comment: Stuart Lancaster was an honourable man - but fell short where it really mattered

As Lancaster himself acknowledged in his final statement, you are first defined by results and ultimately damned or celebrated for them

Near misses accumulated for Stuart Lancaster's England
Near misses accumulated for Stuart Lancaster's England

Michael Cleary

An honourable man gets put out of his misery.

The longer the World Cup review lasted, the more unseemly it has been for Stuart Lancaster.

The drip-drip of self-indulgent tittle-tattle from players, the Sam Burgess treacherous affair, the touting of possible replacements, all cast Lancaster in a far darker light than he merited.

He did not deserve to be so traduced by some of his own (anonymous) players nor by Burgess who did not disclose to Lancaster any inkling of his feelings of disenchantment much less his plans until just before the final World Cup game against Uruguay.

It has not been a triumph, with four successive runners-up slots in the Six Nations, but it did succeed in revitalising the sense of a national team.

Of course, innovation or gimmick, the appeal to the shirt, the re-branding and re-connection, will only take you so far. There is one thing above all others that inspires a nation and that is victory.

As Lancaster himself acknowledged in his final statement, you are first defined by results and ultimately damned or celebrated for them.

There is some middle ground to be found early in a coaching reign but not in a World Cup. Hero or zero; rooster or feather duster; acclaimed or derided.

Despite the narrow margins in play against Wales – and Chris Robshaw’s decision not to kick for goal in the closing minutes will haunt and cost both men for some considerable time – the outcome was ruinous. The margin of the defeat against Australia (33-13), England’s fourth worst beating at Twickenham in 291 tests and 105 years, sealed the deal as far as Lancaster was concerned.

There was no way back from such a hideously public set-back, England exiting the tournament only 16 days after it opened with such fanfare. The #carrythemhome marketing hashtag looked forlorn. #carrythemout.

Lancaster proved to be a good manager. But he has come up short as a top-ranked coach, of the calibre of a Steve Hansen or a Michael Cheika, an Eddie Jones or a Warren Gatland.

These men have proven track records as winners of significant matches or tournaments. They find a way, they get the job done. It is not luck, it is the inculcation of judgment and belief in players.

Lancaster has notched up some notable wins, over Wales on the opening Friday night of this year’s Six Nations Championship (how long ago that seems), over Australia in the two preceding autumn series and even the All Blacks were defeated on a delirious and deceptive afternoon back in 2012. So let us not gloss over the upside to the detriment of Lancaster’s reputation. He did make things happen.

But not often enough. Not when there was a clinching victory to be claimed. Wales in Cardiff in 2013 when England were going for the Grand Slam. The opening day of the 2014 Six Nations championship in Paris when France were allowed to get off to a galloping start.

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Near misses had a habit either of accumulating, as with Wales in the World Cup, a match England had in their grasp, or games just ended up splattered all over embarrassed English faces as with the Wallaby loss. Wales and Scotland troubled Australia. England did not.

What now? For his own coaching team of Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt, the prospects are bleak. For England, the search for a successor is under way. The RFU have to get it right on all fronts this time.

Telegraph.co.uk

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