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Lancaster the people's choice but huge challenges lie ahead


Stuart Lancaster. Photo: PA

Stuart Lancaster. Photo: PA

Stuart Lancaster. Photo: PA

The crowds were not at Twickenham yesterday as Stuart Lancaster took his place at the top table, no more the interim one but a man of permanence.

The stands may have been empty, but the presence of those who acclaimed Lancaster's England side during the Six Nations had reverberated right through the interview process and into the formal appointment by the English Rugby Football Union board of directors via a conference call yesterday morning.

The revival show proved a hit at the box office. It was enough to win him the vote.

Even though populist sentiment could have been resisted by chief executive Ian Ritchie, he would have needed good reason to go against the prevailing view. Lancaster's rival for the post had been Nick Mallett, a highly regarded figure on the world stage.

Lancaster's domain, by comparison, was located in West Park RFC on the outskirts of Leeds. One man had travelled the world, the other had stayed close to his roots.

Ritchie stated that appointing Lancaster was not "a gamble". Maybe not. But the 42-year-old Cumbrian with only intermittent top-flight experience carries no guarantees of success.

No one knows if he can kick on to great things, but nor does anyone know whether Mallett's arrival might have knocked the youngsters who Lancaster nurtured out of their stride.

Mallett may well be England-born, but to many he is a South African to his core. Ritchie dismissed the notion that Lancaster's Englishness had held sway. He had won through on a variety of factors and nationality "was irrelevant". Ritchie saw it as a "bonus rather than a factor".

Of course, there has been far more to the revival than a tawdry appeal to jingoistic emotion. There has been detail, structure and game plan.

But there has to be a rallying point of reference, and that has come in Lancaster's back-to-basics ethos and pride in the shirt.

Mallett would have offered things that Lancaster currently cannot. He has been in tight corners with South Africa, lambasted by a critical public there and worked out how to beat New Zealand and Australia. That makes for a hefty CV.

If Mallett had been appointed in December when he was first approached, no one would have objected. His failing was one of timing, and that was not his fault at all.

Lancaster's holistic approach was a key ingredient of his appeal to the panel. Ritchie talked of "integration", that ability to operate on several levels. Lancaster is both coach and manager, a hands-on tracksuited figure with acute PR awareness. "He ticks all the boxes," Ritchie said. Quite.

But he has to continue to do so. England have to perform in South Africa, even if victory in a three-Test series proved beyond the Lions in 2009. It's a huge challenge, but he won't shirk it. Lancaster has won the hearts and minds of a nation, and with it the top job -- the people's choice. Meanwhile, Andy Robinson has decided to continue as Scotland head coach despite their Six Nations whitewash, the Scottish Rugby Union have confirmed.

Scotland finished the Six Nations with the wooden spoon, leaving Robinson to consider his future despite being under contract until the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

A statement from the SRU read: "Andy will continue to lead the Scotland national team with the support of his revised coaching structure." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent