It sounds more like St Trinian’s than Twickenham, but the day after Stuart Lancaster was given the job as England Rugby Head Coach he crept back into school in Wakefield. “I parked in the car park, sneaked round the back of Science and tiptoed to where the girls were playing hockey with the women PE teachers I’d taught with,” says the man who 12 years before took rugby on the very same playing fields at Kettlethorpe High School. “I picked up a hockey stick and said, ‘Ay-up miss, do you fancy a game?’ The hockey sticks went into the air, the lesson was abandoned – because they had obviously seen me at the press conference on TV the day before, getting the England job. It was fantastic.”
For ten years a PE teacher, Lancaster must have been popular, even among those allergic to exercise, and not simply because of a willingness to abandon lessons. Beneath the No 2 crop and shoulders as broad as a clubhouse bar door – testament to a life in the gym and an upbringing on his parents’ Cumbrian farm – he has a quiet charisma rather than an intimidating presence. His enthusiasm is infectious, which, combined with a north country bluffness, means he holds his own in a crowd. He certainly held his own when the blazers and brogues brigade at the Rugby Football Union approached him to be caretaker coach after England exited the 2011 World Cup in disgrace, having dismally lost their reputation, as well as a rugby match to France, with drinking, dwarf-throwing and all.
The plan was for Lancaster to pick up the pieces until a superstar coach from the southern hemisphere could be persuaded to head north. By March 2012, after a Six Nations campaign that had done much to expunge the painful memories of the autumn, Lancaster had led his team to a creditable second in the championship, including a revenge win in Paris, but more importantly restored pride in English rugby and instilled in the players a renewed self-respect. It was, in the words of one of Lancaster’s assistant coaches Graham Rowntree, “the perfect job interview”. Twickenham agreed. The phone lines Down Under remained silent. Instead Lancaster got the call.
“I was told by [RFU chief executive] Ian Ritchie, and got the train back home to Leeds. No one else knew. I wanted some time to reflect on the journey home, and my wife was out anyway, so I didn’t ring her. When I got home, I wanted to tell her but the washing machine had broken and it had been a pretty tough day with the kids, so the timing wasn’t right. I waited through the course of the evening and the timing still wasn’t right, so I thought I would leave it for a bit. We got to bed at around 11 o’clock and turned the light off, and after a final – one-way! – conversation, she finished by saying, ‘Anyway, have you heard any more about the job?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, didn’t I tell you? I got it!’ She turned the light on and started punching me! She said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t find the right time!’”
It was a rare instance of bad man-management – or in this case, woman-management. “I’m not very good at it!” Lancaster jokingly protests. Those who have worked with him beg to differ. “No, I’m not bad, to be fair. We’re a pretty good unit,” he says of his wife Nina, who runs fitness “boot camps” for women. They have been together for 20 years.
Lancaster’s England are not a bad unit, either, if a little mercurial, last time out beating the world champions New Zealand, the so-called “best team ever”, by a country mile, 38–21. So how has he turned round a squad that lost their bearings so badly that they managed to tarnish the reputation of the previous coach, Martin Johnson, a novice to coaching but a rugby icon, having captained England to their 2003 World Cup win?
“I think the players at the time wanted England to be successful. Obviously I needed to sell the vision to them as to what I thought it would take for us to become successful. I think they were happy to become a part of it. And if they weren’t, then I didn’t pick them!”
Among those who weren’t picked was Mike Tindall, an old pro in the England World Cup squad, Mr Zara Phillips to the tabloids, a centre by day and carouser-in-chief by night. Was there a reluctance among the older players to toe the line? “I think there is a danger that as players go on they can become cynical,” says Lancaster, “and I don’t believe that I picked any cynical players.”
He began, as many a teacher before, by writing to the parents. “I wrote and asked the parents of the members of my squad to get hold of two or three different people who had supported the player and ask them to write back and explain what it means to see him play for England. That’s quite powerful, and when you give it to the player it reminds them that there are an awful lot of people who have supported them. We had grandparents, younger sisters, girlfriends, PE teachers, academy coaches… it was surprising how many people are touched by a player’s success.
“It is always brought home to me by the text messages I get when England win – they aren’t from superstars or celebrities, they’re from my mates and family, my colleagues from teaching or the people who have helped me on my journey, and they are the ones who feel most proud.”
We’re talking on the Isle of Dogs in the heart of deprived east London, where Lancaster has come to a windswept Tower Hamlets park to launch a rugby volunteer programme, RugbyForce. It’s familiar territory for a man of the people. “The grass roots keeps players grounded, it reminds them where they have come from, a school or a rugby club… I think that was a positive mindset that I wanted to change after the World Cup, where players wanted to give something back to the people who have supported them, instead of just taking.”
Does he often have to go into schoolmasterly mode? “Erm… I think there were times… I wouldn’t describe it as schoolmasterly, but there are different teaching styles you can employ to get the best out of people. It’s the thing I try to focus on the most, trying to get the right tool out of the box at the right time to motivate them.”
Is that why he banned training in balmy locations, last year cancelling the squad’s trip to Portugal for a more bracing destination – Leeds? Where will his England be limbering up for their first match, against Scotland? “We’re going back to Leeds next week! It’s important to stay grounded. It’s the little things that make a cultural shift, not one big thing.”
It seems warm-weather training means nothing to a man from Wakefield. “Exactly. And when you play Scotland it means absolutely nothing!”
His record with England – won six, lost five, drawn one – suggests a steep learning curve, although the losses have come mainly at the hands of southern hemisphere opposition. Despite making 100 appearances as a flanker for Leeds, Lancaster never played rugby at the highest level, unlike his predecessor Martin Johnson. Does his nous as a teacher make up for his lack of international experience? “Even though I didn’t have international experience, having never done it, what I did have was 20 years of coaching and teaching. If you are a player who retires and then starts coaching, at best you might have five years’ experience. That’s 15 years less than I have, so I guess that gave me the inner confidence to set about changing the culture of the England team.”
When did he last teach? “Sunday! I coach my son’s under-12 team on Sundays, at West Park in Leeds.” He and Nina have two children: Daniel, 11, and Sophie, 12. Would he return to teaching proper? “Yes, it’s fantastic! I did the presentation evening to the Year 11s in November. I love helping people to improve. I’ve had lots of occasions when I have taught pupils and managed to get them back on the straight and narrow. Coaching is teaching in its purest sense.”
He certainly put some of England’s players back on the right path. “Stuart has dragged us out of the gutter” is how assistant coach Graham Rowntree puts it. “It’s important to have standards and principles and to behave in a decent way,” says Lancaster. “When I was a teacher, I always made a point of speaking to the dinner lady, the cleaners, as well as speaking to the head teacher… I guess one of the things that frustrates me, and particularly the temptation as a professional sportsman, is that you can create an ABC of importance: ‘I’ll speak to him because he is important, but they are not worthy of my time because they are too low down’. I can’t abide that behaviour. When you leave a hotel it’s important to thank the receptionist and whoever for looking after you and all those little things. That matters to me.”
Is that why he showed the squad he chose to tour South Africa in the summer the unwanted headlines England garnered the last time they travelled to the southern hemisphere?
“Yes – I said to them, ‘Fundamentally, how do we want to be remembered as a team? We’ve got two choices. We can be remembered like this… Or you can tell me how you would want us to be remembered. What headlines would you like to see?’
“It’s a game that is grown by rugby clubs and schools up and down the country and if we alienate them we alienate our lifeblood – so you have to guard it at your peril, the ethos that surrounds rugby. Professionalism and everything that comes with it – money, fame fortune, all those sort of things – can pull against it.”
Which makes rugby players fundamentally different from their footballing counterparts? “Er… I think it’s too harsh to say that all footballers are like that. I can’t believe that every professional footballer has some sort of twisted value set. I’d say the majority are pretty hard-working, honest, respectful people.
“It’s a lot easier to be a successful team if the country is behind you. One of my major objectives was to reconnect the England rugby team to the England public, and certainly the sense I get from the atmosphere at Twickenham, from when I meet people at grass-roots rugby, is that they are behind us. Yes, there are commentators who have opinions on selections and wins and losses, but fundamentally if you took a straw poll of 100 people from rugby they would say we are going in the right direction. Which is an important stepping stone for me because, going into the 2015 World Cup, home advantage has to be not the weight of expectation, but the power of a nation behind you.”
After that unexpected victory over the All Blacks in the autumn internationals, a nation certainly expects. So if last term’s Six Nations was “the perfect job interview”, what would represent progress this term? “To go the whole way and win it… we got four out of five last year, but if you get too far ahead of yourself, you won’t win any.”
Which sounds like a note of caution in a half-term report. What marks would he give his boys out of ten?
“I’m not going to give them a mark… but I would say… definitely developing. We have got very good foundations now, a good team spirit, a good group of young players coming through who I think will be peaking by 2015… the trick now will be to continue winning in the short term, back up the New Zealand game and win in the long term as well.”
So... “must do better”? “I think that’s too harsh.” For now, teacher may not be marking, but the fans have taken note – Lancaster’s class of 2013 shows enormous promise.