Lancaster’s credentials cannot be ignored as RFU delay

From the amateur playing fields of Leeds to the hallowed turf of Twickenham, England’s Six Nations journey has been both long and varied.

Those soul-searching days at West Park RUFC and Weetwood Hall in January certainly set the tone for a more open England, who have entertained off the field with a PR charm offensive and on it with hard work and guile.

That memories of the sobering autumn in New Zealand are now distant owes much to Stuart Lancaster and the ideals he has put in place.

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England’s Six Nations’ odyssey ends at Twickenham today against Ireland.

Whether it concludes in the rapturous delight of title celebrations will determine how much fuel is left in the tank for Lancaster’s journey.

The former Leeds player and coach and Wakefield school teacher has transformed public perception about English rugby at the very top, as well as improving performances on the field.

He has laid the foundations for a new style of rugby with his bold team selections and the confidence and self-belief he has instilled into a predominantly youthful looking squad.

All the while, he has been fielding questions about the long-term status of his job and preparing his own application for the process.

The Cumbria-born 42-year-old interim head coach was interviewed by the Rugby Football Union this week for the post of full-time successor to Martin Johnson.

Nick Mallett, the English-born, South Africa-raised former Springbok and Italy coach is his main rival for the position.

The RFU have publicly prioritised experience as the vital attribute in their search for a man to take them through the 2015 World Cup cycle.

They even went as far as approaching World Cup-winning coach Jake White, before he made an about-turn on his interest in the job.

But that was before Paris, the Stade de France and the Lancaster-inspired England victory over France.

RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie said in the wake of Paris that the result would not affect the appointment process.

But how could it not? The Stade de France is an intimidating place to go, France were World Cup finalists five months ago.

England blew them away in the opening quarter and then relied on their improving defensive doggedness to see them over the line.

Lancaster also led England to a first win at Murrayfield in eight years when they beat Scotland on the opening weekend of the tournament.

He then sent them out into the snow-bound Stadio Olimpico in the second half emboldened by the desire to overturn a first-half deficit against Italy.

Three away games, three wins, the first time England have achieved that in the Six Nations era.

But for Scott Williams’s steal, kick, chase and score they were eight minutes away from being within a penalty of beating Wales and it could have been the Red Rose challenging for a grand slam today, not the Red Dragon.

In his Six Nations audition, Lancaster could barely have done any more. What he lacked in international experience two months ago, he has begun to make up for.

The flip side of the coin is that England could easily have been staring at four straight defeats in this year’s championship.

They needed two charge-down tries by Charlie Hodgson to beat Scotland and Italy and had Phillipe Saint-Andre selected Morgan Parra instead of Julien Dupuy it could all have been so very different.

The media clamour for Lancaster to be appointed is growing, just as it would grow for his removal in the summer were England to endure a torrid tour of South Africa.

The visit of the three southern hemisphere super powers in the Autumn Internationals would then become a very tricky next assignment.

Beating the northern hemisphere nations in the Spring, while all well and good, does not win World Cups.

Australia, New Zealand or South Africa have to be beaten for the ultimate prize to be landed.

The RFU have the 2015 World Cup on home soil high on their list of importance.

Lancaster does not have a body of work to fall back on when the going will inevitably get tough.

The RFU have already had their fingers burned by a raw appointment in Martin Johnson and will be mindful that they do not suffer the same fate.

The appointment of Mallett, who has been at the sharp end of international rugby for much of the past 15 years, is a much safer option.

The decision is set to be made shortly, unless they opt to keep the status quo going into the summer.

All Lancaster can do is send England out to beat Ireland today.

It would be hard for the RFU to ignore four wins from five; to choose past accomplishments over present-day promise.

However it ends for Lancaster, he can hold his head high at a job very well done in this year’s Six Nations championship.