by Preeti Virdee
4th February 2012
A most striking moment wandering up to Surrey's Penny Hill Park Hotel & Spa from the car park was hearing a small host of voices coming from behind me. There was not a plummy accent amongst them, but came from all over the country, and it was comforting to know that the playful banter was resonating from the 'new England'. Of course when you are around the entire squad, there is the odd Kiwi lilt (though it is fast disappearing...the accent and the cockiness - not the player), more than a murmur of RP, the Samoan, the 'WhenWe' and a couple of Saffas, but they have all lived here at least 8 years, or in the case of Brad Barritt, always had a British passport. So straight off the bat we can allay fears of draughting in every foreigner who has a grandmother's dog that was English. The principle of growing your own is coming along very nicely in England.
Only 16 of the 30-strong squad who went out to the Rugby World Cup 2011 are left to rebuild the perceived dishonour brought to their nation, though I would still argue what did they honestly do that was so awful that the campaign and the team has been labelled 'disastrous'. Over the last 24 months, that allegedly diabolical team is bettered in terms of winning percentages by only the current world champions, New Zealand and France in the top tier countries. In the IRB world rankings, England are 5th, with New Zealand 1st, Australia 2nd, France 3rd and South Africa in 4th, whilst Ireland is at 6, Wales 8, Scotland 10 and Italy 12. A little perspective would not go amiss.
New head coach, Stuart Lancaster, has swept out all the has-beens and celebrity wannabes, and brought together a squad picked on merit and form. There appears to be not a whiff of politics which has tainted the England selection for many a year. The fact that 30-year old Phil Dowson - a player who is a 7s Rugby World Cup winner, and one of the strongest No. 8s on the English circuit - has had to wait so long to earn his first full international cap bearing an England Rose is testament to Lancaster's vision. There is fresh blood, and coupled with a new ideology and philosophy, the world is now England's oyster.
Interim coach, Lancaster, has arrived in the top northern hemisphere position with 20 years of coaching experience and an host of wins behind him. In stark contrast to Martin Johnson, Stuart is a level 5 qualified coach, has been the England Saxons Head Coach (including three Churchill Cup wins in '08, '10 and '11) and RFU Head of Elite Player Development, straddling all of the national age group and development sides since 2007. Despite being the caretaker, his philosophy is simple: "To build a team that has longevity to it, a team that is ready now to win in Scotland, that can go to South Africa to compete, can go well in the Autumn Internationals, and that the majority of the players can be involved in the journey to 2015."
Lancaster is engendering a strong culture based on respect, honesty, integrity, and ability, and anyone who steps outside of his tenets will be reprimanded. We have already seen this with the country's best scrum half, Danny Care not even considered for Six Nations selection after his two recent brushes with the law, and Delon Armitage dropped from the EPS completely after getting into a fight, both albeit in their own time. It appears his laying down of the law is working. The atmosphere in camp is so focussed on getting every element correct, and the players seem to be so calm and ready to take on the world. This England feels right.
A week's training in wintry Leeds rather than balmy Portugal has set the tone for the new regime in preparation for the RBS Six Nations Championship 2012, and connecting with the grass roots of rugby is an eye-opening ideal - possibly even eye-watering for the old guard(!) Lancaster is taking the elite of England Rugby and turning it on its head to create the best England possible in the run up to Rugby World Cup 2015.
As for the players, England has a new captain in Chris Robshaw, and though he has only one cap to his name, Robbo is captaining Harlequins for the second year. So far this season, he led the club to the top of the Aviva Premiership table in week 3 of the tournament, a position the team has maintained ever since with only 2 losses in 13 rounds. It is widely known that Northampton Saints' flanker, Tom Wood was originally the preferred choice, but a toe injury put paid to that and for at least two weeks against Scotland and Italy, Robbo's position as captain and number 7 is safe. but by no means is it cemented.
It appears that Lancaster will guide and nurture this group of boys to a winning side, and allow them the freedom to use their initiative, trust in their ability and decision-making, and will not stifle the obvious flair that they possess as each player has shown back at their clubs. He is ensuring that the likes of Robshaw, Owen Farrell and Jordan Turner-Hall gain enough experience between now and 2015 to compete on that international level where England can again carve through the southern hemisphere teams as did the 2003 RWC winners. The development of the leadership group that the captain can rely on, peppered with successful club captains like Dylan Hartley, engenders confidence in a team that understands that each player is there to support the next, and yet ultimately it is 25 year old Robshaw that will be making the final decisions on the pitch.
In a very short time, with the backing of strong management team in Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, Lancaster has given England the tools to face their opposition proudly on every front, beginning with the Auld Enemy. I will jump to no conclusions on whether the inexperience of new England will bring them success from the outset...but everyone involved is making the right noises, and putting in the effort. Only time will tell, but if he has got all the elements in preparation correct, I can confidently quote Lancaster, "The score will take care of itself!"
Click to follow England and the Six Nations in the 2012 Championship: