New book revives criticism of Stuart Lancaster’s England reign
Former RFU director of rugby cites decision to fast-track Sam Burgess as a ‘tipping point’
Stuart Lancaster: “My aim is . . . trying to do the right thing on a daily basis, trying to do the right thing for Leinster, trying to improve the players, to improve the environment.” Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Rob Andrews unexpected memoir tears open a healing wound. The former RFU director of rugby has revived harsh criticism of former England coach Stuart Lancaster’s decision-making at the 2015 World Cup.
The curious case of Lancaster fast-tracking Rugby League star Sam Burgess into the international arena puts a seemingly rehabilitated coaching reputation under renewed flack.
“To my mind, it was a simple error of judgement: simple, and enormously costly,” Andrew writes. “Stuart had made such a big thing about the importance of fighting for the honour to wear the shirt, yet in the frenzy of an impending World Cup he allowed something to take root in his mind that directly contradicted the very principles on which he had rebuilt the culture of the team. It was massively unsettling for a bunch of willing individuals who had been through a fair bit since coming together and had become very tight-knit as a playing group.”
The Irish equivalent of this scenario would be David Nucifora lacerating Joe Schmidt if or when the pair of them ever part ways from the IRFU.
“I have to say I didn’t see this coming,” said Lancaster at Leinster’s media briefing ahead of the Champions Cup opener against Montpellier at the RDS this Saturday.
“I wasn’t aware that anything was being written but I guess it’s part and parcel of being a national coach. You know when you take the responsibility you’re accountable when it doesn’t go well. I think I did that from the start and I will still continue to do that.”
Extracts from Rugby: The Game of My Life: Battling for England were published by The Daily Telegraph.
Andrew, the 71 times-capped England and two-tour Lions outhalf, revisits what was widely accepted as self-inflicted damage by the England coaching ticket which also included current Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell.
Lancaster removed Manu Tuilagi from the squad due to disciplinary reasons before capping Burgess against France in a World Cup warm-up in August 2015. Burgess, who had largely played flanker for Bath since switching from League, was badly exposed at centre in the 28-25 defeat to Wales at Twickenham. Lancaster subsequently dropped Burgess, using him off the bench in the defeat to Australia that ended England’s World Cup campaign on home soil at the Pool stages.
Burgess is now back playing for the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
“If there was a problem team-wise in the run-up to the 2015 World Cup, a selectorial Achilles’ heel, it was to be found in midfield,” Andrew wrote. “Try as he might, Stuart Lancaster could not settle on an optimum configuration. Which is where Sam Burgess came in, and where things went horribly wrong.
“I would not even begin to pin the blame for our embarrassing World Cup misfire on a single player, but the kerfuffle around the introduction of Burgess was undeniably the tipping point.
“Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell have always defended their position on this, but as far as I’m concerned they can say what they like: Burgess was a rogue ingredient in the mix, both before the tournament and during it, and his inclusion had a negative effect.
“Why did Stuart do it? He alone knows the truth of the matter. But all head coaches are control freaks in their own ways, especially around the matches and tournaments they know will define them, and Stuart became pretty dictatorial in the way he ran the show in 2015.”
Lancaster’s title at Leinster is “senior coach” so he answers to Leo Cullen, but players have roundly praised the 48-year-old’s impact since arriving at the beginning of last season.
“He’s had a hugely positive influence on the club,” said Ireland lock Devin Toner. “He’s brought in the ethos of just playing what you see. I think our forwards have upped their skill level since he’s come in.”
Ironically, as England coach, Lancaster was considered inexperienced, with his career path being largely on the development side with the Leeds and RFU academies, while Leinster hired him to bring wisdom to Cullen’s (39) young coaching group.
“I coached over 50 international games which I think puts me second most [experienced England coach] or around there – Sir Clive Woodward has obviously got the most experience,” Lancaster continued.
“So, it does give you a lot of experience. You go through good times, you have great wins and great moments. You go through tough times as well, you learn a lot about yourself and other people as well.
“The down-time in between coaching England and coming to Leinster allowed me to go and visit other environments, to visit other international coaches who have been through the sort of experiences that I’ve been through and learnt from them. You package all of that together.”
When asked about Andrew’s suggestion that he contradicted his philosophy on a team culture by selecting Burgess, Lancaster replied, “I’m not going to go there . . . I don’t think it will do anyone any good by going back all over that now.”
It was put to Lancaster that the weight of England’s World Cup failure will linger until he achieves tangible success.
“Every coach’s aim is to deliver trophies to the team and my aim is not motivated by proving people wrong or trying to change people’s perceptions. It’s trying to do the right thing on a daily basis, trying to do the right thing for Leinster, trying to improve the players, to improve the environment. I don’t think my motivation is any different to any other coach.”