When England won the rugby world cup in 2003, Stuart Lancaster was a PE teacher in Wakefield, where he spent his days planning sports lessons and choosing teams to represent Kettlethorpe High School. How life has changed. Nine years on, the 43-year-old Cumbrian is now the head coach charged with rebuilding the once all-conquering England rugby union team.
Over the next month, Lancaster faces his biggest challenge to date – matches against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand on successive Saturdays at Twickenham. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think of what’s happened,” he says. “It’s all been quite incredible. If you’d told me then I was going to be the England coach, I’d have thought you were nuts. I was a schoolteacher. It’s been quite a journey.”
The route he’s taken from teacher to most important coach in the country began in 2001. It took him via director of rugby at Leeds Carnegie to England Saxons coach and head of elite player development at the Rugby Football Union; then, in January, to caretaker coach. “I don’t think many people knew who I was,” he says of his unexpected promotion. “But I was very sure about what I had to do and what I needed.
“I knew I’d need players with drive and a warrior spirit that shows itself on the pitch when things get tough. If you’ve got that, the score will take care of itself. You need exceptional individuals to play for England – I was looking for the guy who stays on for extra training after everyone else, the guy who works harder in the gym, gets up earlier to train and puts that extra bit of effort in – he’s what I want. I needed to spot those guys, nurture them and get the best out of them.”
Every coach has a honeymoon period and Lancaster has had his, after bringing England home as runners-up in the Six Nations. Appointed full-time coach in March, he has been untroubled by criticism because he has moved the England team so far, so fast. He arrived when the side was in disarray after the shambles of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, dogged by allegations involving dwarf-throwing bars, drinking and – the final flourish – Manu Tuilagi jumping from a ferry for a swim in Auckland harbour.
Lancaster recalls his first task on taking over from Martin Johnson. “I talked to the players about the responsibility they had – to themselves and to everyone who had helped them along the way. I needed them to understand the pride and the values of the shirt.”
Now he faces his biggest challenge. “We’re in good shape,” he says. “Injuries are always a worry, so obviously we’re hoping everyone’s fit. There’s a real optimism in the side, though. The Olympics brought success closer to home. The players are committed and ready. This autumn will be a great test of how far they’ve come.”
It will also be a test of how far Lancaster has come, from a Wakefield staff room to the dressing room at Twickenham.
Coverage of England’s International Rugby Union match against Fiji starts today at 2pm on Sky Sports 1 and 2:15pm on 5 Live Sports Extra (kick-off at 2:30pm)