London Evening Standard
The Rugby World Cup is little more than a month away but, for Stuart Lancaster, it starts this Saturday. England host France at Twickenham in the first of three warm-up matches for the tournament and the head coach says: “They are not friendlies. If we adopt a friendly mentality going into these games, it’ll be a waste.”
This is the sort of response you would expect from a man who is famous for his attention to detail.
The players still talk about their first meeting with Lancaster when he took over from Martin Johnson after the disaster of the 2011 World Cup. Lancaster gave each player a certificate on which their parents described what it meant to see their son in an England shirt.
“When you play for England, it’s not just about you, it’s about everyone who supports you on your journey,” says Lancaster.
That journey reaches a landmark next month when England stage the World Cup. Unfortunately, the draw has not been kind to Lancaster’s men, with Australia and Wales among their pool opponents.
“I don’t think there has ever been a tougher pool in the history of the World Cup,” he says. “We will need to be at our best to get out of a very difficult group.”
The Wallabies showed their class on Saturday as they beat the All Blacks for the first time in four years but Lancaster thinks they are not the only team capable of upsetting the holders.
He says: “New Zealand have set the template. From winning the World Cup in 2011, they have maintained their status as No1. We are all chasing them at the moment. We’re confident we’re narrowing the gap.”
Whether the hosts can close it completely over the next three months remains to be seen.
And while home fans are thinking only of the here and now, the head coach is already casting his mind towards how his young squad might fare at the 2019 World Cup.
“We know New Zealand’s senior players are over 30 and will have to retire and they will need regeneration coming through,” he says.
“Our average age is very young. Some of our talented players are 21, 22, 23 years old. George Ford, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell are only very early in their rugby development. You could have four more years’ development on them to get to the 2019 World Cup. They will be on 40, 50 or 60 caps by then but will only be 25 or 26 years old. We are in good shape and in a good place. There is no doubt.”
And it is this talented, youthful nucleus that gives him the confidence to say: “We will, of course, try to win the World Cup but what we’re trying to do is to go beyond the World Cup. This England team will continue to develop way beyond this World Cup. The World Cup itself is a massive event but the legacy beyond that will be bigger.”
But do we not always hear such talk before major events only to find the real legacy is unused stadiums with no impact on the grass-roots of the sport?
“2015 will be different,” he insists. “I’m very confident in the plans that have been put in place, particularly the QBE Coaching Club. Development at the right level is all about coaching young people. For that you need quality coaches and we already have 2,015 new Level 2 coaches qualified. This will have a massive impact once the spike of interest comes after the World Cup.”
Surely there was a similar spike in 2003 when Martin Johnson’s team won the Webb Ellis Cup. So, why did English rugby fail to capitalise on it back then?
Lancaster, who was a teacher at that time, says: “The game has evolved hugely in the last 12 years. The RFU are in a far stronger position. The thought and the plans that have gone into the World Cup and the legacy programme are way ahead of where we were in 2003.”
Since Lancaster was appointed, he has stressed to his players the need to be good role models. So when, in May, Manu Tuilagi was convicted of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver, he was axed from the squad.
“The core values of the game are what attract people to rugby: respect, sportsmanship, discipline, teamwork,” says Lancaster. “And it’s important that those qualities are held by the national team because they set the benchmark for player behaviour on the pitch.”
Whatever the sport, the relationship between the fans and the national team is crucial, and Lancaster hopes to strengthen that bond in the coming weeks.
“There’s nothing more powerful than an English team being successful and the country getting behind it,” he says. “In the last couple of weeks, the Ashes have shown how the country has got behind the England cricket team and the momentum that it generated.
“We should be proud to be English. The more we are, the more we can generate that sense of national identity and pull together as one big team.”