The last decade in English rugby can perhaps be summed up by one question: ’How do you follow Martin Johnson?’
Harsh? Maybe. But the Red Rose has withered under the glare of the giant with the furrowed brow ever since 2003.
In the immediate aftermath of that triumph in the World Cup, England searched for an on-field leader as effective as Johnson, but without success.
Then, they decided to throw the Leicester stalwart in at the deep end and make him England team manager.
There were moments of optimism, reasons for hope, but Johnson was let down by certain players during the 2011 World Cup, and there was to be no way back.
Now, though, there is a new mood around England’s training camp, and it seems they have finally emerged from under Johnson’s shadow. The man himself is on an extended holiday, enjoying family life.
And after the last vestiges of 2003 were brought down in a bonfire of the vanities revolving around Mike Tindall, dwarves and mystery blondes in a Dunedin nightclub, shoots of recovery have sprung to life.
They were most evident in the stunning 38-21 win over New Zealand in December, but it is perhaps better evidenced in the fact that you don’t have to lower your voice and whisper conspiratorially when admitting you are a rugby fan.
In short, Stuart Lancaster has put the pride back into English rugby, and he has done it through humility, hard work and an honesty that previous regimes have lacked.
This is not an assault on Johnson, but his loyalty to those who did not deserve it took England to their lowest ebb. The only positive is that it has allowed Lancaster freedom to bring about root and branch change that can only be admired.
After all, how many other international coaches would insist they remained in charge of their other side — West Park Leeds U12s?
It is this self-awareness and moral fibre — Danny Care was temporarily excluded from international duty after repeated run-ins with the law after alcohol-induced scrapes — that has drawn the English public to Lancaster and his captain, Chris Robshaw.
Indeed, as assistant coach Graham Rowntree admitted to Brian Moore, the new England’s selection policy can best be summed up by the phrase ‘no prats’ (although that may be the polite version), and it is not before time.
Yet Lancaster is well aware that all he has done is make a solid start. He has been given a year’s grace, and been upgraded from interim to permanent Head Coach, but the true test starts now.
“I’d like to think we did deliver a change,” said Lancaster, looking back on his year at the helm.
“This time last year I was sat here as interim coach and on the back of the World Cup we made 15 changes. Seven players got their first caps against Scotland, and we had a new captain (Robshaw).
“The most important thing for me was to get that culture right and the reason why playing for England is special.
“Speaking to people at grass roots rugby level, people are optimistic with what we are doing and the journey we are taking, trying to take a young group of players through to the World Cup.
“You see it at Twickenham, even though we didn’t win all the games people were behind us and that helps, that the country is behind you and not against you.”
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