Lancaster’s culture shock for rough and ready England

Each new England player underwent an induction when they met up with the squad at their Surrey training camp last week.

Yet the induction did not cover lineout calls, defensive systems or set-piece moves; instead, it was a history lesson, one in which the likes of Anthony Watson and George Ford were told about their country’s past, and the responsibilities they have to live up to.

They were told, for example, about Arthur Leyland Harrison, the only English rugby union international to win the Victoria Cross.

Harrison was knocked unconscious early in the raid on Zeebrugge on April 21, 1918, as the British party came under heavy fire, but when he came to he led his ship straight at the German machine-gunners, taking their post and silencing them so that the Zeebrugge-Bruges Canal could be blocked.

He died from his injuries, but in his honour the England team now have the ‘Arthur Harrison Defence Award’, given to the best defender after every international.

This is the England of Stuart Lancaster, a side that is attempting to understand their place in the world as they look forward to the 2015 World Cup on home soil.

Gone are the days of dwarf tossing and heavy drinking; instead there are studious young men who take their profession extremely seriously.

Lancaster’s past as a teacher shines through as he wants his team to feel their actions have a more important meaning than simply whether or not they win a rugby match.

His mantra is ‘the more you have to play for the better you play’.

“We are learning a lot about the past players and the history of English rugby,” says scrum-half Danny Care.

“Stuart really has taken it back to the grassroots, has got everyone on board and made everyone feel a part of it.”

Out of context those words sound like bland platitudes, but let there be no doubt that every member of the England set-up has bought into Lancaster’s culture.

In previous years culture would have meant a trip to the pub and a team song, but the nadir of the 2011 World Cup ensured there was a group of players and supporters desperate to believe in something.

No longer would players be able to proclaim after a quarter-final defeat that ‘there’s 50 grand down the toilet,’ as one senior squad member did three years ago.

Instead there are heritage committees, power-point presentations and group viewings of DVDs about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarter-back who went from draft pick 199 to be one of the greatest players in his sport.

“The culture of the England team has changed,” says Lancaster. “The players now embrace the concept that they are representing England every day of the year, not just when they are on international duty. The right culture drives motivation and behaviour.”

That culture starts with the right characters. It has been described by one member of the England camp as a ‘no dickheads policy’, and it must be said the current squad fit that particular profile.

Then their motivations must be assessed. At the start of each block of matches, Lancaster sits down in one-on-one sessions with each member of his squad. With these meetings taking around 15 minutes each, that means eight hours of meetings during the first two or three days in camp.

In a briefing following last year’s Six Nations, Lancaster listed seven attributes he looks for in a newcomer to his squad: inner confidence, a good temperament, being able to hit the ground running, a love of the big occasion, being prepared to graft like a team player, being blessed with technical skills that do not melt under pressure and a will to win.

Most media and fans would focus on the skill-set, but Lancaster assumes they are already in place, meaning they must work on their mental capacity.

If there is a template it is New Zealand. The All Blacks don’t just think they can win — rather, they know they will. All those at the Aviva on November 24 can attest to that.

What Lancaster wanted to discover was why that belief existed, other than the fact they have the best players. As such he refers to a chart that compares motivation with behaviour. At the bottom of the chart — ie the least impressive factor — is ‘me’, a player simply performing for personal glory. At the top, when motivation and behaviour are working in perfect tandem are ‘the shirt’ and ‘a cause’.

“I assumed when I started that you just pull on an England shirt and that creates your motivation,” Lancaster said in November.

“But it’s playing for your team-mates, for the legacy and history of the shirt and for the identity of the country, these are the things I use as drivers to motivate the players.”

To assist with this he has invited a number of guest speakers to the team camp, Bradley Wiggins, Gary Neville and Andrew Strauss among them, while the national team players who had virtually no English heritage have been quietly eased out. Players have been given video cameras and asked to make a short film on what England means to them, while names such as Ronnie Poulton-Palmer and Wavell Wakefield are mentioned alongside Harrison.

Poulton-Palmer was, like Harrison, one of 26 England internationals to be killed in World War 1 after a stunning start to his rugby career, while Wakefield was a true star of the inter-war years and was the first English member of the IRB Hall of Fame.

There is now a ‘Heritage Committee’ who are tasked with discovering similar examples, and they are asked to make presentations to their team-mates with their findings.

The story of James Peters, the first black man to play for England back in 1907, is thought to have a remarkable effect on certain members of the squad and Lancaster makes no bones about what he is striving for.

“If players have a real commitment to the shirt and a desire not to let it down, it creates a higher level of determination to win,” he says.

Poor on and off-field behaviour will not be tolerated, and in some respects Lancaster was fortunate he was able to put a marker down early on by banishing Care from his squad after the scrum-half was arrested four times in three months for a series of alcohol-related incidents. His punishment served, Care was reintegrated back into the squad but nobody was left in any doubt that they had to maintain their standards.

There can be no doubt that the English public are behind Lancaster, too. That he felt comfortable enough recently to break cover and talk about tapping into the spirit of Euro 96 was instructive; that cannot happen if the public don’t actually like the team.

The Six Nations are vital to the development of the team, and a Grand Slam would give real hope that the World Cup can be won. But Lancaster’s battles are ongoing and when it comes to the culture of the England team he has already won.

“Emotional glue brings a team together,” said Lancaster in October. “The players have pride in the shirt and I think people who come to Twickenham can see that in the performances, and hopefully people at home can see that as well.”


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