No one is too talented to discard

MOUSETRAPS nestle behind the sink in the gents’ toilets. Rugby training kit crowds shelves in a tiny clubhouse bar, which is improbably squeezed under railway arches. The spartan, chilly “office” upstairs is strewn with cobwebs. In many ways, humble Millwall RFC is the ideal setting to meet Stuart Lancaster.

For the England rugby head coach is steeped in the decidedly unglamorous world of grass roots sport. He still helps coach his son’s Under-12 club, is bemused by his elevation to demi-celebrity status, and favours old-fashioned remedies to defeat. “We were disappointed to lose on Sunday,” he says of his second team’s recent Yorkshire Cup defeat. “But we had a good chips and sausage afterwards so we all cheered up.”

Yet that cloth-cap image belies his position as the most powerful man in English rugby in arguably its most important era. A World Cup on these shores is little more than two years away, and Lancaster, who can boast no glittering playing career, is the man the Rugby Football Union have entrusted with masterminding a home triumph.

His unpretentious persona is also at odds with the meticulous, scientific rigour that has served him well in his first year in charge, while his affability masks the palpable pain he speaks of feeling at each defeat, and the anguish of his most cherished protege peeing his future up the wall – literally and metaphorically.

It has been a whirlwind 12 months for the 43-year-old, who has gone from little-known coach of England’s second-string Saxons team to the successor to Martin Johnson, a 2003 World Cup winner, and reached a peak last month, when his youthful team romped to a record-breaking victory over the mighty All Blacks.

But, as the Cumbrian prepares for his second RBS Six Nations campaign, the stakes have now been raised. Stabilising a squad riven by a disastrous last World Cup will not suffice this time; England are fancied to win the title. He acknowledges the pressure, but, as is his wont, has a painstakingly crafted plan.

“There is expectation now surrounding the Six Nations, particularly after the All Blacks game, but the only way to deal with that is to focus on the process of winning, rather than the winning itself,” he says of next month’s championship.

“That’ll look after itself if you get your foundations right: strong team spirit, good culture, good technical organisation, and motivate them in the right way. And that’s what I do. I invest all my time in thinking about that, rather than the implications of winning or losing. Because if you did, you wouldn’t be doing your job properly, you’d be too worried about the consequences of defeat.”

Lancaster puffs out his cheeks and exhales when it is suggested the world he now inhabits was alien just a year ago. It is, he says, “hugely different”, largely in terms of media and commercial commitments – “the sideshow” – and “the scrutiny and exposure” entwined with matches being broadcast to millions.

He also keenly feels the burden of leading England, and admits to having to wrench himself out of the gloom following home defeats to Australia and South Africa in November and Wales last spring.

“That’s three more losses at Twickenham than I wanted,” he says. “Having lost against Sheffield, you feel bad for your Under-12s. Multiply that by 10,000 when you’ve lost an international, because you feel responsibility for your team, people in the stadium, the country. Defeat hurts at international level and you don’t want to experience it very often, I can assure you.

“You’ve got to get yourself out of that disappointment and find what went wrong. It’s a skill a coach has to have. If you look browbeaten and down that you haven’t found the solution, they [players] will pick up on that. That’s not good coaching.”

He may have found the solution in the glorious sacking of the world champions, but was swiftly brought down to earth in a Yorkshire Cup Under-12s quarter-final. “I said to the team that beat us: ‘We can beat the All Blacks but we can’t beat Sheffield,’” he laughs, adding of his weekend role: “It keeps you grounded and reinforces the privilege of doing the [England] job. Coaching players, whether they’re 12 or 25, you deal with them the same way: you’re positive, enthusiastic, want to help them improve, and deal with defeat and victory in the same way.”

That affection for rugby also radiates when discussing Rugby Force, the NatWest-backed initiative aimed at helping local teams improve facilities. Clubs are encouraged to apply for grants and join a weekend of DIY, ultimately nurturing the talent pool for Lancaster’s successors. He says: “If we develop facilities, we’ll get more players at clubs, and it’ll make them better places for players to develop.”

One of Lancaster’s biggest achievements has been repairing England’s sullied image, following the ferry-jumping antics of players at the dismal 2011 World Cup. He talks with pride at changing the culture of the set-up, a feat that helped the RFU retain commercial partner O2 and sign deals with BMW and Canterbury.

Yet his seemingly no-nonsense stance on discipline is more nuanced. Having initially dropped Danny Care after a drink-driving charge, he welcomed him back later last year, despite a further incident in which the Harlequins scrum-half was cautioned for urinating in public. It was an episode that severely tested Lancashire’s loyalty to a player he first coached in the Leeds academy.

“He was the player I’d worked with at the youngest age, and I wanted to work with him probably more so than anyone. People have said to me, ‘Do you think it was a great opportunity for you?’. I thought, ‘I couldn’t think of anything worse,’” he says.

“Generally I don’t have one set of rules; I have a set of principles I apply on the context that I know surrounds that particular individual. In Danny’s case, he was hugely remorseful about what happened this time last year. I met him a couple of times during the Six Nations, and I became more and more convinced he was on the right track. I think subsequent behaviour has proven that.”

Lancaster’s willingness to offer second chances is not restricted to Care. Eyebrows were raised when Northampton forward Calum Clark made the Six Nations squad, despite last year’s 10-month ban for over-extending and breaking an opponent’s arm, while hooker Dylan Hartley, who served a six-month ban for gouging in 2007, is seen as captain material. Perhaps, with 2015 at stake, there is pragmatism as well as clemency in Lancaster’s approach.

“No,” he laughs, taken aback by the suggestion. “There is no ‘too talented a player to discard’, in my opinion. If you want to build a successful team, you’ve got to have everyone on the same page. Talent gets you to the front gate, but it’s character that keeps you there. I’ve seen loads of players who have the talent to get to the top, and they’ve got there, but don’t have the character to keep them there. If you don’t have both, I’ve got plenty of players who have.”

Stuart Lancaster was launching NatWest RugbyForce (part of the wider RBS RugbyForce programme), helping community rugby clubs in England become stronger businesses. For more information and to register your club visit: rugbyforce