Regardless of how England finish their Six Nations campaign at Twickenham on Saturday, Stuart Lancaster should remain at the helm. He is, ever so precisely, guiding a ship that is on course to mount a very real challenge for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Nobody, not even new chief executive Ian Ritchie and his cohort of suits at HQ, should wrest that privilege from him.
As Sir Clive Woodward had not in the first two years of his tenure before snatching the Webb Ellis trophy from Down Under, the former Kettlethorpe High School PE teacher has earned the right to be judged on a four-year cycle. Someone should tell Nick Mallet to hold fire on that ticket to Heathrow.
My unerring certainty of Lancaster’s credentials is not borne out of the weekend’s fantastic 24-22 win at the Stade de France, although England’s derailing of Les Bleus’ ten-match Saint-Denis winning streak has converted many dubious red rose fans. Rather, it is his grounded, unassuming and insightfully innovative nature that should render him a shoo-in.
The 42 year-old is just as patriotic as Martin Johnson, the war hero who preceded him. Crucially, though, despite possessing barely an iota of the gnarled Leicester Tiger’s playing experience, Lancaster is infinitely more tactful. Johnson was undeniably loyal – to a fault, some may argue – but his successor has almost perfected a charming blend of personable affability and dedicated professionalism to the matter in hand.
Speaking to the BBC’s Sonja McLaughan at the final whistle of Sunday’s superb victory, England’s interim head coach was a picture of proud delight. Inevitably, following some standard remarks about looking ahead to the Ireland clash and how he couldn’t possibly comment on his chances of getting the job full-time, Lancaster finished the interview with a roaring chuckle. He is enjoying himself immensely, far too much to become embroiled in the extra-curricular politics. Besides, others can speak with much more vehemence on his behalf.
Unsurprisingly, the players have led a resounding and unanimous vote of confidence for the man that has instilled unity and integrity into their team culture. Chris Robshaw, promoted from plucky Aviva Premiership star to esteemed national captain was convincing in his concise praise for Lancaster and his assistants, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell.
“We have come a long way in these six weeks and the credit has to go to Stuart and his coaches,” said the openside after skippering his country to their first positive result over the Channel since 2008. “I want the environment they have created to continue and we are backing them.”
Phil Vickery, a raging bull who rampaged the trail to many of Woodward’s wins of yesteryear, made the best point, highlighting Lancaster’s past as the head of England’s second string, the Saxons. In that role, he was alerted to the talents and, more significantly, the character traits of the younger generation. In that role, he oversaw the likes of Brad Barritt, Phil Dowson and Charlie Sharples as they grew into the white shirt and collected Churchill Cups like stamps.
Lancaster’s selections this year have reflected that nous. Geoff Parling, seen by many as inferior to the benched Tom Palmer, has been a revelation. Choosing the self-confessed ‘70s throwback’ to start the past two fixtures may have seemed slightly left-field to the layman, but the decision is clearly well-informed. Industrious and abrasive against both Wales and France, Parling has also been precise enough at the set-piece to be lauded by some judges – Austin Healey among them – as the best line-out technician in the northern hemisphere.
Man-management is an equally impressive facet of Lancaster’s armoury, apparent from the renewed self-assurance of Tom Croft, who has rediscovered his barnstorming best on the blindside flank. It is not just the pack that is blooming, either. The return of Manu Tuilagi is reaping predictable rewards, while Lee Dickson and Owen Farrell are forging a complimentary partnership at half-back – one harrying, one composed.
In fact, one episode that summed up Lancaster’s regime during the defeat to Warren Gatland’s Wales last month involved Farrell. As the 20 year-old fly half left the field after tweaking a hamstring with his team leading 12-9, he limped past every member of the backline, slapping their posteriors and growling encouragement. That salt-of-the-earth selflessness epitomises Lancaster’s philosophy. Still though, it may not be enough.
This digital age of has brought a huge scope for rumour-mongering and idle speculation. Indeed, Twitter was the unlikely medium that former Springboks boss Jake White used to rule himself out of contention. At the start of this month, the Rugby Football Union informed ex-Italy and Japan guru John Kirwan that his expertise was not sufficient, a fact that was also plastered all over the internet rather rapidly. Lancaster would do well to avoid social media for a while. Thankfully, his actions are louder than tweets.
Mallett – he of the 17-Test winning streak with South Africa between 1997 and 1998 – is now the only man left to challenge the incumbent, but the powers-that-be would be outrageously arrogant to meddle with what is clearly a refreshing formula in order to appease those in pursuit of a ‘big name’. It is always dangerous to draw allegories across different sports, but Twickenham is no place for a Fabio or a Sven-Goran.
I, for one, hope that Lancaster spoils the Declan Kidney's Saint Patrick’s Day party with a fourth win. Then, he can enjoy a pint of the black stuff and indulge in another long chuckle. By June’s tour of South Africa, the ‘interim’ clause in his job title should be long gone.