How Stuart Lancaster transformed England from flops into a force
Unheralded coach has introduced a far more sophisticated approach to England’s rugby than many yet appreciate
Robert Kitson – The Guardian, Friday 8 February 2013
Head coach Stuart Lancaster has turned the England rugby setup around since taking over in March 2012. Photograph: Paul Harding/Action Images
Here’s a question ahead of another gripping Six Nations weekend: what do English rugby, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and English basketball have in common? And what does the answer have to do with something called a sigmoid curve? Or the San Francisco 49ers? Welcome to the hidden detail of Stuart Lancaster’s England regime, a far more sophisticated operation than many appreciate.
Even now, a year into his tenure and with England playing their most positive rugby for a decade or more, Lancaster is still perceived in some quarters as a PE teacher who got lucky. Few have stopped to examine precisely how the modest Cumbrian has prompted such a sea-change in attitudes – both inside and outside the dressing-room – from a virtual standing start. New Zealand have been beaten by a record margin, Scotland impressively dispatched, 18 new players have been blooded.
"What he’s done in the last year is remarkable," says Kevin Bowring, the Rugby Football Union’s head of elite coach development. Win or lose in Dublin this weekend – and nothing is remotely guaranteed – England already have their self-respect back. A long-term plan is evident, too; by common consent. None of this has unfolded by accident.
The story should probably start at a coaching conference in the summer of 2005. Lancaster, newly appointed as director of rugby at Leeds, was invited as one of England’s six representatives to a get-together for all the Six Nations countries. Bill Beswick, the sports psychologist who is a long-time confidant of the former England football coach Steve McLaren, was chairing the session. Lancaster remembers it as a formative experience, even though Beswick was better known in football circles (he has worked at United, Forest and Derby County) than oval-shaped ones.
"He asked questions about people’s coaching philosophies. I subsequently volunteered to talk about what I believed in – in front of the coaches. At that point Bill was working with England football but we started chatting and I’d go and see him maybe three times a year."
Fast forward a few years and Beswick, who was head coach of the England men’s basketball team that won the 1982 Commonwealth Championship, is now one of two influential advisers to Lancaster, along with Bowring.
"Those are the two people who would know me most," admits Lancaster, who has seen them more than his wife, Nina, over the past fortnight. Beswick, without public fanfare, visits the camp twice a week and Lancaster has long enjoyed talking through problems and possible solutions with him, not least in terms of the vast difference between club and international coaching. "We’d talk about what I was up to and what challenges had presented themselves. He’d give me some ideas about what to do or just have a chat about what makes high-performing teams. These days he’s got a relationship with a few of the management and will also give some of the players support if they need it."
So far, so normal. Alongside their own-brand structures, past England coaches have all had their gurus, mentors and muses: Sir Clive Woodward, who was in charge the last time England won in Dublin in 2003, had Humphrey Walters, while an Australian named Gerard Murphy was attached to Martin Johnson’s setup. But Lancaster’s relationship with Beswick is different. This is a more modern, go-ahead England setup than people, as yet, appreciate. Once Matt Parker, formerly British cycling’s head of marginal gains – who has recently been hired to be another of Lancaster’s go-to men – gets his bike-clips fully under the table it will become even more evident.
To a greater extent than most other coaches, Lancaster believes that a culture of self-improvement should apply as much to him as to his players. His regular brainstorming sessions with cycling’s Dave Brailsford and other sporting experts are not window-dressing but genuine attempts to broaden his mind for the betterment of his squad. Mike Catt, England’s skills coach, speaks of a constant quest for improvement. "We spend a hell of a lot of time together watching copious amounts of rugby. While we’re doing it, ideas will get thrown in and we’ll debate it. But if we try out an idea in training and the players don’t like it then it’ll be dropped. The players drive it all. That’s the relationship Stuart and we have with them at the moment. There’s a massive amount of trust."
The outside speakers brought in to address the squad, including Andrew Strauss and Bradley Wiggins, also encourage a broader perspective. "The nature of the job means you’ve got to rely on your own gut instincts and personal beliefs when you make decisions as the England coach," Lancaster stresses. "But often it’s good to sit down at the end of a series or tournament and reflect on how I handled this or that. It’s not a case of: ‘Right, something’s happened, I need to ring someone up for some advice.’ Generally I trust my instincts and judgment, but in between camps is a good time to share ideas with coaches from other sports and plan for the next campaign."
Sitting in a hotel on the outskirts of Bristol, Bowring offers further thought-provoking insight. The former Wales national coach dislikes the word "mentor" – he prefers "thinking partner" while Lancaster opts for "sounding board"– but he has been encouraging better coaching practice within English rugby since 2002. "The RFU were the first sport to say: ‘How do we make our best coaches better?’ When you become national coach everyone thinks you know everything, but sustaining a career in elite coaching is about constantly renewing yourself. Sir Alex Ferguson renews himself with a new assistant coach every five years and refreshes his team with a couple of players virtually every season."
This, it emerges, is the principle of the sigmoid curve, where you make changes before things start to decline rather than when it is too late, as English rugby has too often done. "There’s never an occasion where a team gets so old it drops off its perch and you have to start again," says Bowring. "The time to change is at the top of the curve. Doing the same thing repeatedly doesn’t get the same results. Peter Moores wins the county cricket championship with Lancashire, does the same things again the following season and gets relegated. You have to stay open to learning."
Bowring does not find everyone receptive – "What I’ve learnt in my job is that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink" – but the 43-year-old Lancaster has an unquenchable thirst. The book The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, the famous San Francisco 49ers coach, is a particular favourite and his teaching background also helps whether he is coaching, leading or managing – the three cornerstones of elite sport decision-making. "The modern coach needs to be a relationship manager," Bowring says. "The modern player is different; his self-esteem is up one moment, down the next. It’s a challenge to get the best out of him. Stuart is terrific with his staff and his players. He has a one-on-one meeting with every player at the start of every camp. They each take 15 minutes minimum for all 32 players. His work ethic is voracious. Sometimes we have to tell him to go back and see the family. Sometimes these guys still need to refresh their batteries."
Lancaster could certainly never be accused of sloth. To him a busy man is a far more effective operator. It is also about ensuring a consistency and clarity of message, rather than myriad different voices. "People have said: ‘You need a team manager,’" he says, faintly mystified. "Because of the way I operate I’ve never understood why that would be necessary. I’ve always been the coordinator of the schedule as well as the coach and whatever else. There’s a minimum number you need to have to make sure you give the players what they deserve in terms of a professional environment. But I wouldn’t want to grow it any more than it is now.
"Fundamentally my belief is that the culture is set by the head coach. It’s important for a head coach to feel supported and have people to go to, but the high-performance environments which have won consistently have all been driven by the head coach, rather than anyone else. If you subcontract someone to operate your culture, it’s going to break down fundamentally. It becomes hard to control the message if you’ve got too many people there hanging around."
For some tastes this may all sound a little too corporate or business school. If it were not allied to good selection, decent players, sharp instincts, smart man-management and the competitive edge of a former back-row forward who became the first person to play more than 100 times for Leeds, it would certainly be harder to sell. There can be no disputing, however, the transformation in English rugby’s self-image. "To change the reputational damage after the World Cup, to invest in young players … he’s done a terrific job player-wise and team-wise," says Bowring. "Simplicity, clarity, media, sponsors, relationships, clarity of direction, vision … he has addressed them all."
The big question, of course, is what will happen next. Time will tell, but those close to Lancaster are optimistic that, this time, England are getting it right. "I think Stuart feels there is massive scope for improvement with the team and the management," Bowring says. "I also think he is gaining self-belief and confidence that he can do the job. You don’t know until you go in there, do you? Things are always challenged by media pundits but in the end you have to have the faith to go in a certain direction in the belief it’s the best for everyone. He may have a dip but the trend is moving in the right direction. That’s down to his future planning, his vision, his leadership, his understanding and belief in the process and the players."
There is more to England’s re-emergence under Lancaster than close-cropped, old-school northern grit.