Now the going gets tough
March 30, 2012
Stuart Lancaster must now plot England's tour of South Africa © Getty Images
He has transformed the culture within the England camp, led them to victories in Paris, Edinburgh and Rome, secured a second-place finish in the Six Nations, and, consequently, seized a job that was never meant to be his. But now it gets tough for Stuart Lancaster.
There are 37 games to the Rugby World Cup and the first sevens are the hardest. England's new era begins with a three-Test tour of South Africa this summer followed by autumn internationals against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It will be a really tough series of matches for England.
To go down to South Africa with a young side and play three Tests against the Springboks will be very difficult - Lancaster's honeymooon period is unlikely to last until the last Test in Port Elizabeth. Rugby is a religion out there and they will expect nothing less than to whitewash England. It might sound negative but at this stage one win and three decent performances would be acceptable. And anything else would be a bonus. This tour will be about experience for the players and the coaching staff but Lancaster must still create an atmosphere where they believe they can win the series. If they can win the first or the second Test then it will set up an exciting final Test.
Then they have the autumn internationals when they need to beat Fiji and secure at least one more victory. England will need to concentrate on their own performances like they did in their victories over France and Ireland and if they do that, then there is no reason why can't get those first rungs on the ladder to 2015. Lancaster will be crucial. One of his major strengths is the he will be able to instill that belief, and not put the southern hemisphere on too much of a pedestal. It is about creating belief and he has done that in a very short period of time with a young side.
You don't know if Nick Mallett would have had the same kind of rapport and chemistry with the English team as he had with South Africa and Italy. I wouldn't necessarily be against a foreign coach but at this stage of trying to restore pride into English rugby it is right to have an English guy and two really good young English coaches around him.
There are obviously comparisons that we could make with Sir Clive Woodward in terms of their path to the head coach and their meticulous planning. But it would be unfair. It would be wrong to say that Lancaster is the next Woodward. Lancaster has his own strengths and weaknesses and deserves to be measure on his own merits.
The national coaching role is different to a club coaching role because you are not with the players all the time. The players who arrive on your door step are highly talented athletes and it is not so much about your coaching ability but your management and you're ability to create a winning atmosphere and environment. Over the Six Nations period Lancaster did that. It was an impressive period because of the manner of the victories with the first two hard-fought wins - when they showed they wanted to play for each other and for Lancaster - before almost snatching a draw against Wales and then two fantastic victories over France and Ireland.
Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree also did a great jobs as assistant coaches but they could do with more help and an extra voice on the training pitch. A three-man coaching team is not enough at international level. To have the same voice talking about attack and defence is not good and needs to be changed. Wayne Smith appears to be available and he's been a very successful guy in the international game and the domestic game, so he has a raft of experience and would be great to bring in.
The question is whether he would be willing to take a secondary role, because there is no question who is the main man now.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN