Lancaster bombshell hits the spot
January 6, 2012
The foundations being laid by Stuart Lancaster could serve him and England rugby well in the future © Getty Images
Stuart Lancaster's tenure as England boss may not stretch beyond the forthcoming Six Nations but rest assured his impact will echo long after this year's battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.
Lancaster is no stranger to the England set-up having guided the Saxons and nurtured a generation of players as the Rugby Football Union's head of elite player development, and no doubt his finger prints can be found on the careers of those players vying for international honours this time around - but he looks set to make an even bigger and infinitely more important impression on the England set-up as a whole.
The 42-year-old has made all the right noises since taking charge last month alongside fellow caretakers Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell but they are more than just good talkers. The new-look coaching triumvirate has stressed the need to reform the culture of the national side in the wake of a largely embarrassing Rugby World Cup campaign, where things got a little out of hand to say the least, and have been true to their word.
Reduced to a laughing stock and plagued by indiscipline, England had to stop the rot and Lancaster did just that by casting Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care out of his plans for the Six Nations for a second drink-related incident in a three-week period. A warning and a fine from his club failed to curb the in-form No.9's nocturnal activities and an alarming drink-driving charge in the early hours of the New Year has rightly seen him dumped.
Care, who felt the force of the axe just two days after his 25th birthday, was a good bet for a place in England's starting line-up for the Six Nations opener against Scotland but now he will not get a look in until he can be "trusted" - no matter how eye-catching his domestic form.
Care's high profile transgression offered Lancaster a timely opportunity to deliver a message that times have changed. Painfully aware of the need to re-build the reputation of English rugby, there was little chance of a repeat of the soft treatment of centre Mike Tindall whose three-year drink-driving ban in 2009 - his second such crime - did not trouble former boss Martin Johnson with the centre retaining his role at the heart of England's Six Nations campaign the following month.
Such behaviour will clearly no longer be accepted from those seeking the honour of representing their country and as a result Care, who was arguably lucky to escape such a sanction following his drunk and disorderly charge last month, had to suffer. The brutal treatment of a front line player will hit home with other England hopefuls and while it is highly unlikely he would have been dealt with the same way were we on the eve of a Rugby World Cup, the attempt to steady the ship should be applauded and it will re-focus the minds of the entire squad.
Despite this highly-publicised stance, there will no doubt be others who fail to maintain the necessary standards off the field but a blanket booze ban, demanded by many as England's World Cup assault imploded, is not the answer. Lancaster himself has said their pre-Championship training camp will not be a "prison" and other sides, most notably Wales, managed to consume in moderation and achieve results on the field. Much rests on the players themselves although should the new coaching team adopt the youthful approach we are led to believe that they favour, then a guiding hand would be most welcome.
As in the words of Damian Hopley, the players' union boss, who has welcomed Lancaster's tough stance and promised his organisation will play its part in keeping the squad on the straight and narrow, "players need that rigour of protocol, they need to know where they stand."
The decision of the Penrith-born Lancaster to relocate England's camp from the luxurious confines of their normal Portugal training base to his local club West Park Leeds RUFC could be another masterstroke. Desperate to re-connect with the hardcore fans and win back their more casual counterparts, the decision to go back to grassroots will not only bring them a wealth of positive PR - something England have been severely lacking of late - but will, in one well-devised move, offer some priceless reassurance that after months of negative headlines, English rugby is on the mend.
They will be back in the palatial surroundings of Pennyhill Park for the course of the Six Nations but all the richer for that break from the norm. Servicemen are set to provide a reminder of what it means to represent your country while success stories from other sports - cricket and cycling - are poised to offer an insight into how they reached the top of the world. Only someone with a broad understanding of the English game, and a hunger to learn about coaching excellence in other sports, could put these building blocks in place and that person is Lancaster.
Some may say he is keeping the seat warm for Nick Mallett, the former Springboks and Italy boss who boasts significantly more experience than Lancaster who let us not forget has yet to send a side into the Test match arena. As accomplished as Mallett is, you wonder if he could have provided the clarity and direction that Lancaster has in recent weeks and should he assume the top job later this year he will owe a debt of thanks to those who are guiding England through a difficult transition.
Lancaster is still learning and his future will ultimately be decided by the progress his side makes during the Six Nations. However, at this point of the World Cup cycle, some exciting promise and giant strides off the field could see him retain the faith of the RFU and the wider rugby public.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.