the honourable mr. lancaster


You hate to make assumptions about people but you suspect that Stuart Lancaster probably isn’t a huge fan of ‘The Clash’: trousers too high, as Tom Youngs once – bravely – observed. But even if Stuart doesn’t punk around the England Team Hotel at Pennyhill Park to the tune of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ those seven words will – nonetheless – have been ringing round his head these past couple of days. Of course, the staying or the going might not end up being his decision but, if it does come down to Stuart, he has two choices, the first being to resign and the second being to offer to resign. Regrettably, an honourable man has no other options.

The difference between the two – and there most definitely is one – depends on whether he still wants the job. If he’s had enough then he resigns – Johnsonesque – and he packs his bag and he walks away. If he still fancies another four years then he – honourably – tenders his resignation and hopes that the RFU CEO, Ian Ritchie, refuses to accept it, always assuming that Ritchie himself hasn’t already fallen on his sharpest pencil. In fact resignation letters could very soon be flying around Twickenham faster than cushions at a bullfight, so much so that the only man left to field them all will presumably be Rob Andrew. Hey, we jest.

From Stuart Lancaster’s perspective, though, you sense there has to be a resignation of some kind; the key word in this farrago being ‘honourable’. The decision has nothing whatsoever to do with rugby per se; indeed, tactics, selection, Sam Burgess, none of this is relevant: all that matters is taking responsibility for stuffing up and Lancaster’s England have stuffed up royally. In fact, as we all know, no host nation of any World Cup has made such a pig’s breakfast of its own party.

‘Honour’, of course, is an outmoded concept these days and, not surprisingly, it was the French – albeit the nineteenth century French – who gave it a bad name. Two messieurs once dueled with blunderbusses in hot-air balloons 2,000 feet above Paris – the first bloke to fire actually missed, would you believe – while two other noblemen decided to settle a late-night altercation by throwing billiard balls at each other – Monsieur Melfant apparently won the toss to take the first shot and duly hurled the red ball clean through the forehead of the gallantly stationary Monsieur Lenfant at the other end of the table – none of which gives the idea of integrity the best possible publicity. Personally, I quite like the idea of settling trivial disputes with a little mortal combat. At least it saves on lawyers.

These days, though, the ‘h’ word is barely audible outside Westminster or the Privy Council where Right Honourable members are very often neither. Certainly the idea of honour in sport is very far from fashionable; the last time an Australian batsman walked, or a Premiership footballer struggled to stay on his feet under a clumsy challenge in the penalty area, they put up another pyramid in Egypt.

But you suspect – and certainly you hope – that Stuart Lancaster is different. Certainly that’s the impression you get given he’s spent four years building his boat with a set of solid oak principles. Hartley could have been accommodated but he wasn’t. Care was once excommunicated, Tuilagi banished. Lancaster has been rock hard on role models, on exemplary behaviour and on his insistence that his players do the right thing on and off the field. ‘Accountability’ has been the first word in his dictionary, so he can scarcely decline to accept its implications now. To some extent, he is hoist by his own petard.

All this said, you have to feel for him. This team – his team – will unquestionably ripen over the next four years and to stand down now and hand over all that spadework to someone else must be a mortifying thought. And he still has influential supporters; Jonny Wilkinson, Maggie Alphonsi, Will Greenwood – luminaries all – have each nailed their colours to the House of Lancaster this past weekend in the name of stability and continuity and – in fairness – they have a point. If New Zealand hadn’t held their nerve in 2007 then Graham Henry wouldn’t have been on hand to reap the rewards of 2011, likewise Clive Woodward wouldn’t have had the chance to turn the ignominy of 1999 into the immortality of 2003: the lesson being, Keep Calm and Carry On.

Set against this, of course, you have the manner of England’s capitulation in this World Cup: a suicide one week, a murder the next. It’s tough to work out which was the more damning but, on balance, you’d have to say Death By Australia, if only because Stuart Lancaster has had four years to transform a moribund England and not even come close to achieving what Michael Cheika has done in just twelve months with an equally moribund Australia, a transformation symbolised, in part, by ‘Giteau’s Law’ and the ‘Armitage Principle’. For many, it’s a very invidious comparison.

Lancaster, for all that, is not just a good man but an astute political animal. His masterful campaign to land the job four years ago was pitch perfect – the Tories’ election guru, Lynton Crosby, would’ve swooned with envy – and unless Stuart’s genuinely ready to throw in the towel, he’ll be considering all the angles this week. Certainly he’ll recognise that if he tries to tough it out, he’ll run the risk of looking grasping, self-serving and a touch hypocritical, whereas if he ‘mans up’ – as discussed – and offers to resign, then he comes across as noble, humble and a patriot prepared to put his country ahead of his own naked self-interest, all of which would play very well not just in Rugby Road but beyond. It’d also force the RFU to confront the vexed question of, if not Stuart, then who? The outstanding Rob Baxter aside, you suspect there are few other Englishmen who come close to fitting their bill.

Of course, in the wider context, English Rugby might also wish to consider why it is that the biggest, best-resourced union in the world has spent the past dozen years staggering from crisis to crisis. Stuart Lancaster will be a mighty talking point in the coming seven days but – unquestionably – the failures of the past decade-plus is the elephant in the RFU’s boardroom and the burning issue that the sport in this country – urgently, radically, finally – needs to address between now and the start of the Six Nations.

05 OCTOBER 2015

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