Whilst Stuart Lancaster’s tenure as head coach of England may ultimately have ended in disappointment, his reign was far from a total disaster.
The group stage exit at a home World Cup was seen by many as a failure, but the reality is that it won’t have come as a total surprise for anyone who has watched the English Premiership in recent seasons. Not only that, but there is no doubting that Lancaster leaves the England side in far better shape now than when he took over in 2011.
After the 2011 World Cup debacle, England were left embarrassed by the fallout from the tournament as player misbehaviour was reported across the international press, whilst much of the team involved at the World Cup opted to step down after their quarter final exit in New Zealand.
Contrast that to 2015, and although England went out one stage earlier, the team is in far better shape than four years ago. The likes of Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have all experienced a Rugby World Cup, whilst youngsters like Maro Itoje have also spent time in an international training camp.
Whilst the side may be far from the finished product, the base is now set for a new coach to come in and make the necessary adjustments. At least this time around, it will be a case of building on top of what has already been established rather than simply having to start from scratch all over again.
Let’s also not forget that famous victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham which came under Lancaster. It isn’t just about individual results either, his record is the best of any England Head Coach since Clive Woodward which certainly isn’t something to be scoffed at. This isn’t to say he was perfect, but just that people are too quick to criticise without look at all of the facts.
There are obviously some major changes that need to be made as England were exposed by the Wallabies in such dramatic fashion during the World Cup, however at least there is a core of young players to work with. This guarantees that with the right guidance, England can head into the 2019 World Cup with considerably more experience than during this year’s tournament.
Say what you like about Lancaster’s tenure, but there is no doubting that he has helped establish a core group of players, whilst giving a number of exciting young prospects their chance, ensuring English rugby should be in a stronger position over the coming years.
Whilst there have been issues reported in the press such as player criticisms of the coaching, and Sam Burgess’s return to rugby league, these stories pale in comparison to tales of dwarf tossing, ferry jumping and royal affairs. He may have taken it to extremes, but Lancaster clearly instilled a culture in the current playing squad that is much stronger than the one in 2011.
Unfortunately Lancaster’s biggest failing turned out to be his lack of experience at the top end of either international or club rugby. However, the blame for this does not lie with him, rather with those at the top involved with his appointment in the first place. If they had the slightest shred of decency, they would also be stepping down themselves rather than hanging him out to dry.
Having had the pleasure of meeting Stuart myself, if only briefly, I can attest to the fact that he is a thoroughly decent man who still took the time to stop and engage with fans even after his side’s exit from the World Cup. Not only that, but the entire squad who were in the hotel with him were doing likewise, suggesting that it is a culture the players bought into as they could just have easily holed themselves up in their rooms shunning press and fans.
Let’s also not forget that under Lancaster, England played some pretty decent rugby with the 2015 Six Nations being a particular highlight. The side got the ball out wide and scored some decent tries, most notably during their final game against France where they put everything on the line going in search of glory.
Unfortunately conservatism kicked in during the World Cup, although it is no great wonder given the amount of scrutiny the England coach found himself under. There is also every chance that he would have found himself preparing for the 2016 Six Nations right now had his side opted to kick for the posts against Wales rather than going for the line-out.
Although he maybe wasn’t quite ready for the Head Coach role, there is no doubting that Stuart Lancaster still has plenty to offer English rugby. It is also a huge shame to see him step completely aside from the RFU where I’m sure he could have continued to provide a great service helping transition players through into the elite squad.
I hope he is now given the opportunity to pick up again at club level, or with a Tier 2 nation, and given the time to truly learn the craft of being a Head Coach. Given time and the right support, I have no doubt he could prove a lot of doubters wrong.
Anyway, whatever the future holds, best of luck Stuart.