In Depth

Stuart Lancaster: weak England coach was in the thrall of Farrell

Lancaster clearly didn't know his best team and failed to come up with coherent strategy for World Cup success

By Gavin Mortimer 

It was as bad as many of us had feared. Stuart Lancaster may have spent the week declaring that English rugby would bounce back from a humiliating implosion against Wales at Twickenham but this England squad has been in steady decline for months. Saturday's record 33-13 defeat by Australia confirmed what we already knew - Lancaster is out of depth as an international coach.

In truth England haven't declined much because, under Lancaster, they've never amounted to much. At his first conference in 2012 he told reporters "we want to be in a position by 2013, 2014, to have a side ready to win in 2015".

In the end they weren't even in the position to qualify from their group, let alone win the World Cup.

The country with the world's richest rugby resources has failed to win a Six Nations titles in Lancaster's reign and apart from a 38-21 win against a New Zealand side ravaged by a stomach virus in 2012 there has been little indication England have been anywhere near finding the quality and consistency to credibly challenge the southern hemisphere giants.

So should Lancaster bear responsibility? Before answering that question I should declare a personal interest. Lancaster and I were once teammates, many years ago for Scottish Exiles Under-21 (we both have Scottish mothers). As one would expect from a man of Cumbrian farming stock, he was a doughty performer but while he would have readily run into a brick wall for the team, he never struck me as having the imagination to work out any other way to circumvent the wall. This lack of imagination has been all too evident the longer his reign has endured.

One of his biggest misjudgements was in appointing Andy Farrell as his defence coach. Farrell - father of Owen, the England fly-half, who was so irresponsibly sent to the sin-bin in the dying minutes of Saturday's defeat - was a great rugby league player. But rugby league is not rugby union and as he showed as a player for Saracens and England, on the few occasions he was capped, Farrell demonstrated little intuition for the 15-man game.

Indeed his one start in a World Cup match was a pool game against South Africa in 2007. The outcome? England were smashed 36-0.

But Lancaster, whose playing career peaked playing for Leeds while he embarked on a career as a PE teacher, seems in awe of Farrell the rugby league legend and he brought him into the fold, despite the complications of having his own son in the squad. Of course, Lancaster and Farrell rubbished the idea there would ever been any nepotism in selection, but for last week's crucial game against Wales Owen Farrell was selected over George Ford.

Ford had been England's fly-half and playmaker for the year leading up to the World Cup but on the back of one average game against Fiji, he was axed and in came the more conservative and less creative Farrell.

Selected alongside Farrell in the England backline was Sam Burgess, a superb rugby league player, but a novice at union, having only switched codes last autumn in a blaze of publicity. Burgess should not have been anywhere near this England squad but he was included at the expense of Kyle Eastmond and Luther Burrell, two talented and experienced union centres. No doubt about it, Andy Farrell's fingerprints were all over that call.

One can only surmise that Lancaster was incapable of standing up to Farrell, just as he was when faced down by the big English clubs earlier in the year. They were unhappy at the prospect of seeing Steffon Armitage selected in the World Cup, a player who plies his trade for Toulon in the French Top 14 league.

Four years ago the RFU declared that the England squad would be selected from English clubs only because they were worried of too many of their star names moving across the Channel to the lucrative Top 14. There was an 'exceptional circumstances' clause, however, one that could have been invoked for a home World Cup - an exceptional circumstance, if ever there was one.

Lancaster chose not to invoke it when he selected his squad, despite the fact Armitage - voted European Player of the Year in 2013-14 - was just the sort of ball-winning flanker that England lacked.

His absence was gleefully exploited on Saturday night by Australia who, in David Pocock and Michael Hooper, have two of the best ball-winning back-rowers in the world as they ran up their biggest winning margin at Twickenham.

The pair were against Chris Robshaw, England's open-side flanker and captain, although in all honesty he's not much of either. What he is, is hard-working and nice, a mirror image of his coach.

And that goes to the heart of England's catastrophic World Cup campaign, which sees them the first host country in eight tournaments to go out at the group stage.

England are just too 'nice'. In the words of one Sunday newspaper, Lancaster "has worked tirelessly to restore the culture and identity of the England rugby team, and has certainly achieved that". Well, whoopee-do...!

'Culture' and 'identity' don't win World Cups, and inviting any number of ageing England internationals to talk passionately to the current squad about the 'pride in the jersey' is pointless if the coach has no idea of his best starting XV, no clear game strategy and continues to put faith in a captain clearly not up to the job.

None of this England squad - with the possible exceptions of centre Jonathan Joseph and wing Anthony Watson - would make a British and Irish Lions XV. There are some very good English players around but they've either been overlooked for this World Cup or they've been buggered about in selection.

It's hard not to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Lancaster, a decent man promoted above his station. "I'm sorry for letting everyone down," he said in the wake of the Australian debacle. I'm just gutted, gutted for all the fans and everyone at home. I don't know what to say as everyone has put so much in and the support has been fantastic. The responsibility and accountability lies with me."

It does, but also with those who appointed him, particularly RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie who for reasons known only to himself extended Lancaster's contract for a further six years last December.

Lancaster and Ritchie must go, so too Andy Farrell and Chris Robshaw. That process should be relatively straightforward given the magnitude of this World Cup fiasco. What won't be so easy is to rebuild an England squad that this morning is the laughing stock of world rugby.

Recommended

Team GB will make Olympic history with male and female flag bearers
Two-time Olympic gold medallist Andy Murray was Team GB’s flag bearer at Rio 2016
Sports Shorts

Team GB will make Olympic history with male and female flag bearers

Ryan Giggs denies charges of assaulting two women
Ryan Giggs leaves Manchester Magistrates’ Court
Sports Shorts

Ryan Giggs denies charges of assaulting two women

‘I’m out’: cricket pundits react to The Hundred’s wickets rebrand
The Hundred cricket
Sports Shorts

‘I’m out’: cricket pundits react to The Hundred’s wickets rebrand

Rachael Blackmore has ‘changed the future’ of horse racing
Minella Times and jockey Rachael Blackmore stormed to victory in the Grand National
Sports Shorts

Rachael Blackmore has ‘changed the future’ of horse racing

Popular articles

London mayoral race 2021: who will win?
Night Tube Sadiq Khan
In Depth

London mayoral race 2021: who will win?

Laurence Fox to Count Binface: the most colourful London mayor candidates
Count Binface
Behind the scenes

Laurence Fox to Count Binface: the most colourful London mayor candidates

TV crime dramas to watch in 2021
Chris Rock stars in the fourth series of Fargo
In Review

TV crime dramas to watch in 2021