May 2, 2014

Lessons for Moores - England rugby's cultural revolution

Tom Hamilton
What can Peter Moores learn from how Stuart Lancaster recast England's rugby union team?

At his unveiling as England's new head coach, Peter Moores said he would take heed of the example set by Stuart Lancaster with the England rugby union team. Alastair Cook has also been impressed, saying: "The England rugby team has evolved particularly well and it would be wrong not to look at the way they've done that." Here ESPNscrum Associate Editor Tom Hamilton examines how Lancaster has been central to overhauling the culture of the national team in rugby.

When Stuart Lancaster took over England on an interim basis in December 2011, the country's rugby side was at its nadir. Six months prior and England had a confident strut about the way they approached games. They believed they were a good side, self-belief fuelled by winning the 2011 Six Nations. They went into the 2011 Rugby World Cup as one of the teams tipped to have a tilt at the title.

But confused selection, off-field indiscipline and unease within the camp saw England crash out at the quarter-final stage having made more headlines on front than back pages. In truth, the only dent they made in New Zealand was when Manu Tuilagi jumped off a ferry into Auckland harbour and was welcomed ashore by the local constabulary. Martin Johnson lost his job as team manager and England had to start again.

The RFU opted for Lancaster, the man who had been director of rugby at Leeds and then the RFU's head of elite player development and head coach of the Saxons, the equivalent of cricket's England Lions. What he lacked in international coaching experience - he did not have a CV the equal of ex-Springboks coach Nick Mallett, who was widely seen as the favourite - he made up in passion and knowledge of the country's players.

That Lancaster took over a blank canvass worked for him. In his first Elite Player Squad - a list of players named every six months that will make up the primary pool of talent England will pick from - 13 players were gone from the World Cup squad that had failed so dismally the previous year. He picked a fresh-faced captain, Chris Robshaw, with just one cap to his name to be the figurehead for his new team.

Even though he was in the job in a temporary role, he went into it looking to change the team's mindset. It was root and branch revolution with altering the team's culture his primary aim.

Lancaster said at his first press conference as interim coach: "We want to get the culture right, we want to ensure we have a talented group of young players who are hungry for success, who are ambitious, who want to win things and it's our job as a coaching team to put that in place and to make sure that going forward we've got a foundation to build upon toward 2015."

He also looked to cricket for inspiration, as England were at that time the No. 1 Test side in the world. Lancaster's words seem resonant now. "It took England some time to go from sixth to first in the world. Cricket did have issues. It wasn't that long ago that they were struggling with one or two things off the field."

"What will ultimately lead to a winning side is the culture. That willingness to be selfless, to be part of a group willing to work hard for each other, to be humble, not to be arrogant, to respect each other and everyone else"
Stuart Lancaster

Anyone who stepped out of the party line was axed and Danny Care felt the full force of this stance when he was suspended for Lancaster's first Six Nations back in 2012 following his arrest on suspicion of drink-driving. Lancaster wanted a team that was to be held up as the example of how to behave on and off the field.

To change the culture, he drafted in speakers from other sports and also the military. The team was, on occasion, re-located to West Park Leeds RFC, Lancaster's stomping ground, as he attempted to bring the players back to the rugby-watching public.

His first major on-field task was the 2012 Six Nations, a championship they finished with four wins from five - two of them slightly fortuitous. But the RFU had seen enough and eventually they tied down Lancaster on a permanent deal in March 2012, alongside Graham Rowntree, the sole survivor of the 2011 World Cup management team, and later Andy Farrell. Mike Catt, who played in the 2003 World Cup-winning side, was added in September 2012 while Lancaster also brought in Matt Parker from British Cycling as their new head of athletic performance.

Since then England's fortunes have been mixed. They are yet to win a Six Nations title but have beaten the world's No. 1 side, New Zealand, and there is a feeling of cautious optimism surrounding England. The first two years of Lancaster's tenure have seen him bang the culture drum perhaps a couple of times too often for a few people's liking, but the atmosphere at Twickenham is louder and more patriotic than that creaking old stadium has witnessed in the past 10 years.

Lancaster is also still learning, he has spoken openly of using NFL coach Bill Walsh's book The Score Takes Care of Itself as a guide and has also taken further inspiration from cricket and the Proteas' attempts to connect with the South African public.

The 2015 World Cup may come too soon for England but what he has done over the past two-and-a-half years is build foundations on which the team can grow. The outside speakers and motivators are largely gone and instead it is the players themselves who are the team's mouthpiece. They now talk that lingo themselves without a timely prod from the media manager.

Fifteen games now await England before their first match in the 2015 World Cup, a tournament played on home soil, and the players will go into it preaching pride in the shirt with a view to channelling that into performance. Lancaster does not see any danger of a situation similar to what has befallen England cricket - he told the Guardian back in January "the best teams make changes before change is forced upon them" - and is adamant his team will not come across as arrogant when they run out in September 2015 and instead will be judged purely on their ability.

"What will ultimately lead to a winning side is the culture," Lancaster said prior to his first Six Nations. "That willingness to be selfless, to be part of a group willing to work hard for each other, to be humble, not to be arrogant, to respect each other and everyone else, to accept the responsibility of being an England player: those values will lead to a winning England."

Tom Hamilton is Associate Editor of ESPNscrum