Military-minded Lancaster resigns

Source:Reuters Published: 2015-11-13 5:03:02

England head coach goes after World Cup failure

England head coach Stuart Lancaster observes his players warm up ahead of the Rugby World Cup Pool A match against Australia in London on October 3. Photo: IC

It is fitting that England coach Stuart Lancaster, who introduced the Victoria Cross to the team's shirt design, chose Remembrance Day to leave his post after his "cultural revolution" was outweighed by World Cup failure.

He also created the "Arthur Harrison Award" for defensive excellence, presented by the coaches following each match and named after England's only rugby international to receive the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for military valor.

Lancaster, whose decision to feature the medal - awarded to Royal Naval officer Harrison ­posthumously in the final months of the First World War - on the England shirt was not without ­controversy, often drew on the sport's military connections.

But no amount of chest-swelling pride, parachuting Royal Marines or tear-jerking anthems could overcome the team's shortcomings, which were fatally exposed on successive World Cup Saturdays when ­defeats by Wales and Australia sealed the country's early departure and ultimately Lancaster's fate.

It was England's worst-ever tournament performance and made them the first main hosts to go out in the pool stage.

As Lancaster said in his resignation statement, he took over "in difficult circumstances" in 2011, initially on a short-term basis, following ex-England captain Martin Johnson's decision to quit as coach after an incident-ridden World Cup campaign.

Lancaster, the patriotic son of a Cumbrian farmer, immediately set about "restoring pride in the jersey" and "re-connecting with the grass roots."

Players jettisoned

His first England training session was at his local club in Leeds, while he jettisoned a group of senior players and blooded seven new ones in his first match, an away win over Scotland.

A second-place finish in the 2012 Six Nations tournament earned him the job on a permanent basis, but the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was hoping for a better return than three more runners-up slots in the next three years.

Lancaster is a meticulous planner and in 2012 he sketched out a projected team for last month's World Cup final boasting a total of precisely 663 caps.

The team beaten by Australia had barely half that number and Lancaster's critics say his selection shifts exposed him at the highest level.

His most controversial decision was the inclusion in his World Cup squad of inexperienced rugby league convert Sam Burgess at center ahead of Six Nations regular Luther Burrell.

It seemed inconceivable to many that, having had four years to prepare, Lancaster went into the crucial pool game against Wales with an untried centre partnership of Burgess and Brad Barritt.

However, Burgess acquitted himself well, nullifying Wales' key back Jamie Roberts, and had helped England into a seven-point lead with 10 minutes remaining.

Costly substitution

Ironically, it was the decision to take Burgess off, moments before Wales scored their only try to level the score, that proved costly as the visitors went on to win 28-25, helped by captain Chris Robshaw's decision not to kick for goal with a late penalty that could have drawn the match.

Lancaster had also been attacked for bringing back fly-half Owen Farrell for the more adventurous George Ford for the Wales game, and even his strongest ­backers struggled to justify maintaining that lineup against Australia.

The Wallabies, who Lancaster's side had beaten well 11 months earlier, romped to a 33-13 victory and eventually reached the final while the England coach went walking in the Lake District.

In his wanderings he might have looked back ­fondly on the highlight of his reign, the ­record-­breaking 38-21 victory over New Zealand in 2012.

But he will have ruminated, too, on the number of times England lost the big games - to Wales, France and Ireland in the Six Nations as well as the World Cup failures.

Lancaster may also wonder about the wisdom of pinning his colors so firmly to Burgess - who this week announced he would return to rugby league.

It was no great surprise that, having taken time to consider everything, Lancaster has left, officially "by mutual consent" despite having four years left of a hugely lucrative contract.

It was also typical of a man widely regarded as thoroughly decent and incredibly hard-working that he stayed around to play a full part in the RFU's World Cup review which was always likely to lead to his own demise.

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