Sunday 17 December 2017

Lancaster working the right message for England

Down-to-earth head coach slowly changing perception of 'arrogant' England as he tries to add humility

Stuart Lancaster’s grand plan to make this England team successful and to alter outsiders’ perception of them seems to be falling into place
Stuart Lancaster’s grand plan to make this England team successful and to alter outsiders’ perception of them seems to be falling into place
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Moments after England's killer win over Wales on the opening night of the Six Nations, Stuart Lancaster momentarily dropped his poker face.

As he walked towards the tunnel in the Millennium Stadium, the ecstatic England coach roared "wooooo!", shouted "come on!", had a go at a double fist-pump and jumped up to tap the entrance of the stadium tunnel. Amid all the excitement, he even accidentally walked into the TV camera that had been recording his every move.

If one of his predecessors, such as Martin Johnson or Clive Woodward (right), had acted the same way, accusations of arrogance and pomposity would have been flung in their direction. But seeing Lancaster act like that in Cardiff didn't grate one bit.


Two hours previously, it didn't grate either when his captain Chris Robshaw refused to bring his team out of the tunnel until just before the Wales players were due out.

How ridiculous the England players would have looked: unable to see clearly with the lights out but being viewed as some sort of sacrificial offering before the Welsh players decided to grace everyone with their presence.

Lancaster's grand plan to make this England team successful and to alter outsiders' perception of them seems to be falling into place.

"I don't want to be seen as an arrogant person or as someone coaching an arrogant side," Lancaster stated two years ago. He was responding to the goading of former Scotland manager Jim Telfer that England were "too arrogant, too pretentious and too condescending".

But hang on a second - don't we want England to be too arrogant, too pretentious and too condescending? Isn't it supposed to make the rest of us feel a bit better about ourselves when England are at their pompous best?

Rifle through the rolodex and you'll see England's embarrassing behaviour at the 2011 World Cup filed under M for Misplaced arrogance. Dwarf-throwing competition? Incredible. The treatment of a hotel worker by three players? Disgraceful. Ball-gate, Mike Tindall's late night escapade and Manu Tuilagi's decision to test the temperature of the water in the harbour in Auckland? Time to go home boys.

More followed with a leaked report investigating where it all went wrong. Players' anonymous comments were vicious and slated almost every aspect of their preparation and attitude.

Here's one example: "To hear one senior player in the changing-room say straight after the quarter-final defeat 'There's £35k just gone down the toilet' made me feel sick. Money shouldn't even come into a player's mind."

Lancaster proved that he was the right man to take over. Last October it was reported that the RFU had made a film promoting English pride ahead of hosting the World Cup. However, with England playing Scotland in the Six Nations after the recent referendum, Lancaster decided against making the video public until after the championship in "order to avoid any political ramifications".

It was simple and smart thinking. "If you start talking about Englishness, you are soon seen as arrogant," Lancaster said. "We have to make sure we have our feet on the ground and show we're not an arrogant team."

This constant rhetoric about not being viewed as arrogant would be baseless if it wasn't for the fact that Lancaster has shown that he means it.

So it's easy to see how Lancaster is a big fan of the anti-arrogance book "Legacy" by James Kerr. This book is big on the importance of humility for the All Blacks. In it Lancaster would have read how "successful leaders balance pride with humility: absolute pride in performance; total humility before the magnitude of the task".

Interestingly, there's also a few lines about Chris Ashton. Kerr writes: "When asked about Chris Ashton, the English winger, and his habit of swan-diving for a try, former All-Blacks captain and hooker Anton Oliver says, "We'd just die."

Lancaster probably cringed reading this. You can't imagine him writing a book about himself and calling it 'Winning!' (sorry Clive) if his team manages to emulate the 2003 World Cup success this Autumn. It's certainly Lancaster's England who're Winning! these days, especially with Bath trio Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and George Ford lighting up the backline.

It's also good to see some of the older guys back. Like Nick Easter, who scored a try against Italy two weeks ago. It was him who made the "there's £35k just gone down the toilet" comment in 2011. Maybe Lancaster wanted to distance himself from that squad when he took over. But the Harlequins No 8's form has been hard to ignore.

So do we lose out if England are trying to dampen down any arrogance? As Bernard Jackman has said: "There's always been a perceived arrogance (about England). Maybe it suits us as Irish players to build that up in our heads before playing them.

"Lancaster has really gone out of his way to limit that."

I like what Lancaster is doing with England. All the same, you won't see Joe Schmidt do a double fist-pump or shout 'come on!' if Ireland win tomorrow.

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