What Stuart Lancaster can really learn from Bill Walsh Posted almost 4 years ago


It’s a scary word. It makes people uncomfortable. It threatens our security. And so we change ‘change’ and call it innovation. The greatest coaches of all time tend to be innovators. Is Stuart Lancaster? That is the big question, not least for himself.

The England coach’s big thing is the philosophy of “let the scoreline take care of itself.” Lancaster attributes it to Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

He says, “Walsh knew, fundamentally, that if you established a culture higher than that of your opposition, you would win. So rather than obsessing about the results, you focus on the team.”

That is only one of the things that Walsh knew. He invented what became known as ‘the West Coast’ offence with its new running routes. That challenged the orthodoxy of establishing the run to set up the pass. Walsh established the pass to set up the run. He was a revolutionary, “a whirlwind of wisdom” with a blackboard and chalk who became known as the ‘Genius.’

He was also a great identifier of talent, bringing in Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. Rice was crucified in the early stages of his career, but Walsh saw the ability that developed Rice into one of the greatest wide receivers in history.

Steve Young, the quarterback who took over from Montana, said of his impossible task, “He (Walsh) knew me well before I knew myself and knew what I could accomplish well before I knew that I could accomplish it. That’s a coach. That’s the ultimate talent anyone could have. I said in my Hall of Fame speech that he was the most important person in football in the last 25 years, and I don’t think there’s any debate about that.”

Is Lancaster the sort of man who can bring in edgy talent as Clive Woodward did? Woodward was a big part of the push that brought league players into union and developed Jason Robinson into one of the best players in the 15-man game. Would Lancaster step out onto that precipice?

Lancaster says, “When you have a critical mass who want to go in a certain direction, any players not buying into the team ethic have a choice to make: either change your conduct or pay the price by not being selected. You go with the players who will be right for the culture. That is a prerequisite for me: select on character, not just talent.”

Hmm. The greatest coaches, certainly at international level, persuade the mavericks to buy into the process. It’s not my way or the high way. It’s my way, but I will make you think it’s your way.

Can Lancaster innovate a playing style? He is cruelly handicapped by England’s clubs. Watching Northampton and Leicester in recent weeks has been depressing. Northampton’s attacking play is coachbound and sterile. Leicester’s involves cheating, one of the centres repeatedly taking out the defender ahead of the ball. But Woodward’s England were similarly hindered by the clubs and he found new ways to challenge the players.

These are big questions for Lancaster to answer. The victory over the All Blacks has bought him a disproportionate amount of goodwill. Insiders will tell you that the win must be taken with a large scoop of salt because many of the New Zealand players were very sick. They were under orders to say nothing about it, a no-excuse culture which does them credit.

If you discount the Fiji match, England’s record over their previous ten matches is lost 5, won 4, drawn one. Six of those matches have been at home and over a period when South Africa and Australia have been greatly reduced by injury and retirement. It is a record that needs improvement.

Lancaster says, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership. How do you develop it? You need to be honest, inspiring, forward-thinking, technically competent. Those are the four qualities I would aim to model myself on.”

So far we can give Lancaster a tick for honesty and a pass mark for technical competence.

But can he embrace change? Can he innovate? Can he motivate the awkward buggers and make them part of the culture?

Walsh lost 14 of his first 16 games as coach of the 49ers.

The rest is history.

Lancaster’s history still lies ahead of him.

What do you think? Is Lancaster the man to innovate England’s playing style?

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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