At the February RFU Council meeting we received two presentations, one from England Sevens coach Ben Ryan in the morning and another in the afternoon from Stuart Lancaster, interim Head Coach of England. I’ve already written about how Ben has turned the England Sevens team into one of the best in the world so this article is about Stuart and his vision for the senior England squad.
Stuart started by explaining that he wanted to address Council as we are the link with the Community clubs and he wants the England team to re-connect with the rest of the game. I for one was delighted as it shows that he understands the key role of Council Members.
The RFU suffered a lot of reputational damage on and off the field and after last year’s Rugby World Cup the England squad was at a real low point in the public’s eyes. When Stuart was appointed interim Head Coach he was determined to turn that around by making players proud to represent their country.
At his first get together with the Elite Player Squad he showed them a slide showing what the press and public thought of the England team before the Six Nations:
He then played a video featuring clips of every one of the squad playing either for England or for their Premiership club with them scoring, tackling, passing, kicking, all individual moments of brilliance that showed why they were in the squad and what they are capable of. The video went on for several minutes with a suitably emotive backing track. I can’t remember all of the clips but two that come to mind are Chris Ashton’s length of the field try against Australia, and Ben Youngs’ try in Australia during the 2010 tour.
Starting with this slide and the video, Stuart has built up the self-belief of the players without them resorting to arrogance, and in just a few weeks produced two away wins in Edinburgh and Rome and a memorable performance at Twickenham.
Stuart spoke a lot about the culture of the squad and the Spirit of Teams. A quote from one of his slides:
High quality teams are grown, rather than merely assembled, it is not that they require long periods of time but they do demand and necessitate high quality time, high quality Leadership and high quality Values
Much of Stuart’s presentation was in this vein, but he also spoke about his selection, particularly of Owen Farrell at fly-half (this presentation was the day before the England v Wales game). During selection meetings the question of when should Farrell be tried in that key position was raised: on the summer tour to South Africa, in the 2012 November Internationals, or maybe in the 2013 Six Nations, but the opportunity arose with Hodgson’s injury and the decision was that there is no time like the present. The player knew he was good enough and so did the coaches, and looking back at the game we all now know he was.
England’s performance against Wales has lifted the spirits of the rugby supporting public knowing that there is so much more to come. The starting 15 had just 182 caps between them, a little over 12 caps per player, compared with Wales’ 488, 20 caps per player more. England has 40 games between now and the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup and we all believe that what we saw at Twickenham was the nucleus of the squad that will play in the tournament.
Stuart spoke for about an hour and we were so enthused by what he had done with the team that we couldn’t wait for kick-off the next day. And we weren’t disappointed in England’s performance with the final result in doubt right up to the last minute.
The newspapers somehow picked up some second hand reaction to Stuart’s presentation with quotes such as:
Last week he received a standing ovation when he addressed the hugely influential RFU Council – Daily Mail
When Lancaster spoke to the RFU Council at Twickenham last week, the word is that he was so impressive he received a standing ovation afterwards. – Daily Express
To be honest, I remember us applauding him but I don’t remember a standing ovation, but the papers are prone to exaggeration, such as calling Council ‘hugely influential’! But that is not to say that we didn’t find his presentation, and Ben Ryan’s before him, inspirational, thought provoking and full of common sense.
England is lucky to have coaches like Stuart Lancaster and Ben Ryan who have their feet firmly on the ground, and who know how to get the best from their players through loyalty and pride in representing their country.
Whoever eventually becomes the permanent England coach will inherit a young, talented squad with the right attitude and a connection to the game thanks to the work and ideas of Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team.