With the fallout from the global economic crisis still being felt around the world, it is in many cases difficult to know whether you will have a job next week let alone 2020 – unless, it seems, you are England’s head coach.
Stuart Lancaster put pen to paper on a six-year contract extension with the Rugby Football Union this week in what can be seen as a ringing endorsement of his achievements both on and off the field since taking charge – on a permanent basis – in March 2012.
A victory over New Zealand at Twickenham was the highlight of his first year at the helm and remains the high point of his tenure. England have not won the Six Nations since he took on the role and they have struggled to cement a place in the top three of the International Rugby Board world rankings – although Argentina’s victory over Australia at the weekend has seen them climb back into that bracket
An away victory over one of the major southern hemisphere giants remains elusive and his record of 18 victories from the 30 matches he has presided over leaves him with a not-too-dazzling win percentage of 60%. But in this case, perhaps surprisingly given this is an elite professional sport, results are apparently not everything – not in the short term anyway.
Lancaster was charged with navigating England out of the disaster that was the 2011 Rugby World Cup where a disappointing quarter-final exit at the hands of France and numerous headline-grabbing off-field incidents saw them slump to a new low in the eyes of the rugby and wider world.
Quite rightly he is clearly being rewarded for having done just that with his bold and refreshing approach to elite sports management helping to once again earn the respect of their rugby rivals and, perhaps more importantly to a union desperate to engage the nation ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the general public.
His efforts to repair a fractured culture within the England set-up have filled many column inches and although he does not hide the fact he regularly draws on the ideas and methods of others, The Score Takes Care of Itself and Sky’s The Limit being two notable examples, make no mistake, England’s resurgence is Lancaster’s handiwork.
His efforts to provide the kind of ‘sustainable success’ enjoyed by New Zealand and craved by his employers extend far beyond the scoreboard at Twickenham. In his previous RFU role as Head of Elite Player Development, Lancaster helped equip talented youngsters for the demands of Test rugby and he continues to take a lead in ensuring that potential is always reached and that the national side benefits from a steady stream of top-class talent.
With the benefit of some top-class talent, England have claimed back-to-back successes at the IRB Under 20 Junior World Championship while England Under 18’s are the current European champions. Success has also extended to the women’s game with England claiming the Women’s Rugby World Cup crown earlier this year.
Arguably just as important in laying the foundation for repeated success is similar development paths for coaches. Despite the huge contract extension, Lancaster knows he will not be around forever and knows he must also nurture the other leading coaching lights within the England set-up to underline his methods and beliefs and sustain the success he hopes they will all achieve.
To do that, Lancaster requires some able lieutenants and his own faith in his assistants was also clearly a major factor in Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt also signing new contracts with the RFU that secures their services until the end of the 2019/20 season. This move is also no surprise given the praise they too have earned from both inside and outside the international set-up.
As highly respected coaches, the RFU is also aware that they could quite understandably be the subject of bid from any upwardly mobile club side in the world and their new long-term deals limit the likelihood of that happening while also providing stability.
Lancaster’s philosophy and presence will also have been felt at age-group level while leading Premiership coaches such as Exeter’s Rob Baxter and Saracens’ Paul Gustard have been invited to work with the national side in the past.
Of course results will ultimately define whether Lancaster is still pulling an RFU pay cheque when we are reflecting on the first World Cup to have been played in Asia. The RFU insist they will conduct performance reviews throughout the contract with the key one set to take place after next year’s World Cup in England.
Expectations are high and safe passage through a pool that also contains Australia and Wales is by no means a foregone conclusion. An early exit may prompt a tearing up of the contract and a pay out that the world’s richest union should be able to cover.
But you sense even if the unthinkable happened and England failed to progress and the media ran roughshod over the team, Lancaster would be afforded the opportunity to atone in Japan in 2019, such is the faith the RFU have in him and his methods.
Key figures in the game including former England coach Sir Clive Woodward have suggested that the comfort offered by Lancaster’s new deal may ‘erode ambition’ and ‘diminish the team’s hunger and fear factor’.
Will the contract hang heavy around Lancaster’s neck if victories and Championships do not come England’s way? Or will the stability it provides give him and his fellow coaches and players the freedom to express themselves more and push the boundaries of performance? Time will tell.