Has the mob ridden out of town yet? Viewing the selection of Stuart Lancaster as England coach from a dispassionate distance was like watching one of those old westerns when the townspeople march on the sheriff’s office and string up the wrong guy. I wish Lancaster well, but like Martin Johnson before him, there is negligible evidence that he will be a successful England coach.
No, this was selection by majority rule. Everyone was shouting for the red rose of Lancaster. The players, knowing that their jobs were most secure with Lancaster, inevitably sided with the new coach. The British media, TV and newspapers, were keen to whip up the hysterical overreaction to some marginal Six Nations success. And England supporters, encouraged by a few wins against mediocre opposition, were easy to stampede.
With the cattle charging through the shires, what was needed was some cool governance. But experience told you that there was very little chance of such a precious commodity coming out of Twickenham
No one on the five person selection panel had ever coached a team beyond a World Cup quarter-final. Even a Heineken Cup success would have been nice. As a group their record at club level was, well let’s be generous, mediocre. Where were Clive Woodward or Brian Ashton or Jake White or Graham Henry on that panel, men with deep World Cup experience? How many of them were even asked?
Sadly there are all too few people of authority around these days. Is it any wonder that today’s sporting CEO nearly always goes the populist route when Britain’s parliament of the previous 20 years seems to have been run almost entirely by focus group. Don’t do the right thing, do the popular thing.
And that is what Mr Ritchie and his cohorts have done. Stuart Lancaster’s record at club level is to have taken Leeds into the first division in 2007. They were immediately relegated, on a limited budget, with a record of won 2, lost 19, drawn 1.
Last year England Saxons won the 2011 Churchill Cup under Lancaster. They were playing at home. In their pool they beat Tonga and USA. Both those sides only had three players from their World Cup starting XV. The Saxons then beat Canada 37-6 in the final, a decent result, but not the sort to initiate an England career.
During the Six Nations England beat Scotland (who had lost 6 matches in a row) 13-6. They beat Italy (lost 8 of previous 11, but were too good for Russia, Japan and USA) 19-15, one of their poorest ever results against the Azurri. England then lost 19-12 at home to Wales. They finished by beating a shockingly selected French side by two points and stuffing Ireland – missing O’Connell, O’Driscoll and Murray – due to a dominant scrummage.
The results were marginal and certainly no improvement on 12 months earlier. Indeed they were slightly worse. England’s points difference was down on 2011. The only improvement was against Ireland, but when England lost in Dublin 12 months ago Ireland had their two Lions captains both playing. Funnily enough those guys make a difference. Take Carter and McCaw out of the New Zealand side and they start to look beatable.
Now let’s look at Nick Mallett’s record as a coach. As South Africa coach he went on a record run of 17 consecutive victories, unbeaten for 16 months. There were record victories over France, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. South Africa lost to eventual winners Australia, a very fine team, in extra time of the 1999 World Cup semi.
Mallett then coached Stade Francais to consecutive French titles in 2003 and 2004. Italy, without a 9 or 10 to speak of, became a far more competitive side under Mallett – and this in an era when both Wales and Ireland improved significantly. Italy won in Argentina, drew in Cardiff and beat France in the Six Nations under Mallett. And perhaps most significantly of all in this period, Mallett coached the Barbarians to victory over both New Zealand and South Africa in 2009 and 2010.
Ask Graham Henry how easy that is to do after Australia put 60 points on his Barbarians side this year. Meanwhile Mallett was helping coach the southern hemisphere to victory over the north.
Furthermore Mallett’s appointment with England would almost certainly have guaranteed Wayne Smith’s participation as attack coach, the pair having enjoyed their work together in that Help For Heroes match. Smith is a World Cup winning coach who is currently turning the Chiefs defence into one of the best in the Super 15. With Lancaster there appears to be an expensive scrabble for the services of Andy Farrell who has next to no track record as an attack coach. Strange.
But never mind the facts. The posse was riding and the dust was swirling. The people had decided on the right man. Far be it from the RFU to exercise some logical independent governance when they could pull the security blanket of mob rule over their heads. All I can say is that must have been one hell of a presentation from Lancaster to get a well-paid job like this, because he certainly didn’t have much of a CV.