Since Stuart Lancaster’s resignation from his England post back in October, the former head coach has taken an awful lot of flak amongst the media and particularly amongst supporters, some of it just but a lot of it not. With news of his potential linking up with former European Champions Cup winners Toulon, we look at why Lancaster might just be the right man for the job.
Lancaster has made it clear that he wants a job in the southern hemisphere, but why? Well, there are several advantages to the Cumbrian being based at a South African or Antipodean team. Firstly, he would be away from the media intrusion that is sadly part and parcel of the English game. Secondly, it would allow him to embrace new coaching methods, new approaches to the sport and a totally new competition.
However, Lancaster could also find these aspects by being involved in the Top 14. Although the French press is certainly passionate about its rugby – most fans outside of France are more than familiar with the likes of L’Equipe and Midi Olympique – the glare would not be magnified to the extent it would be if Lancaster were to be coaching week in, week out in the Premiership – working with and against players and coaches he knew so well from his time with England.
Moreover, the style of rugby and the demands on players and coaches in the Top 14 is different to that in the Premiership and the chance to work with some of the biggest names and best players in the game must surely be an exciting one for Lancaster. Who wouldn’t love to work with the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Bryan Habana?
Taking charge of Toulon is arguably one of the toughest jobs in world rugby, not because of the coaching demands it brings but rather uniting a very cosmopolitan-looking squad into a cohesive unit. How do you merge players from so many different rugby backgrounds into one team? It’s a job that former coach Bernard Laporte did so well and you could often hear players like Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau eulogising about the culture that was built at the side under his reign; a reign in which the team went on to claim three European Cups.
Where Lancaster fell down in terms of England was a lack of a coherent approach to the game, but how much did Lancaster perceive himself as a ‘coach’ and how much responsibility for that side of the management of the team did he delegate to the likes of Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt? It’s something we’ll probably never know for sure, but as a whole they shifted from trying to develop a more expansive and attacking-minded England side, only to revert back to a defensive mindset on the eve of the World Cup. This muddled thinking was sadly embodied by the treatment of fly-half George Ford, who has since flourished under the guidance of new head coach Eddie Jones.
For all the criticism levelled at Lancaster though, it must be remembered that his strengths arguably lie in more of a director of rugby than a head coach role. Like Newcastle Falcons’ Dean Richards, Lancaster is not much of a ‘hands on’ coach, but rather someone who puts structures in place, creates and engenders a culture amongst players and coaches and puts together the ‘machine’ and makes sure it remains well oiled.
A group of Harlequins’ players allegedly told the club they did not want Lancaster to succeed Conor O’Shea because of his lack of coaching expertise, but with a head coach in place beneath him – someone of Lancaster’s choosing – there is a chance for the former Leeds boss to rebuild Toulon in his own image.
One of Lancaster’s assets is also his ability to bring through young players into a team and the number of players he capped and took to his World Cup squad is impressive. Toulon has heavily relied on foreign imports in the past, but under Lancaster he may be the coach to finally allow its excellent academy players genuine chances to play rugby on a regular basis. Having a strong core of French players is something every Top 14 club should have and something Toulon could easily possess.
Whether owner Mourad Boudjellal, with his esoteric and eccentric personality can warm to Lancaster’s straight-laced, serious and level-headed mindset remains to be seen, but on reflection the former England boss might not be a bad idea at Toulon. Forget the southern hemisphere; France could very well be Lancaster’s next destination.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena