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FEATURE – Stuart Lancaster on culture

20 June 2014

  • England Head Coach opens up on importance of team culture
  • Behaviours and commitment bearing fruit as Lancaster looks to 2015 

The word culture has become synonymous with elite sports teams in recent years, the catch-all phrase to demonstrate the unity, strength and values of winning teams and the discord, weakness and individuality rife in those which lose.

In rugby, where immense levels of commitment, personal sacrifice and physical discomfort are required, it is the most important feature in group dynamics. That’s the view of Stuart Lancaster, who devotes more headspace to considering culture than anything else in his broad remit as England Head Coach.

The former school teacher became interim head coach after Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, when England were dumped out by France at the quarter-final stage after a campaign blighted by a series of off-field incidents.

England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster with his captain Chris Robshaw

Photo: Getty Images

With the team back in the Land of the Long White Cloud for the first time since to play a three-Test series against the All Blacks, RFUtv took the chance to discuss what he’s achieved in three seasons at the helm. Firstly, why does the Cumbrian-born former school teacher believe a person’s character is so significant in rugby?

“You can’t win a game of rugby if one of the 15 players on the field is not truly committed to the cause,” he said. “You need a huge level of personal commitment and that commitment has to work through the team. You cannot have a strong team without having a strong culture and everyone buying into it and being part of the team.”

Lancaster credits his family upbringing, followed by an early career as a PE teacher in West Yorkshire and then his first coaching break leading Leeds Carnegie’s academy, to be the drivers of that outlook. In addition, he has assiduously studied the best sports dynasties in history and found one standout, reccurring theme.

“The best teams are the ones which have the strongest cultures, have the team ethic, the desire to work hard for each other and for the shirt that they are playing for,” he said.

“I’m picking good people who want to add value, who want to contribute to the team, who want to make England successful because it’s the world cup and we’ve got a country behind us. Why wouldn’t they want to deliver?”

Lancaster spent two weeks with England at the fateful world cup in 2011 and quickly assessed what needed to happen. With the home rugby world cup looming large on the horizon, the priority was to establish a young, eager group of players who could learn and evolve together with the objective of peaking for the tournament four years later.

With a not-so-subtle sign of the things to come in the new era, Lancaster cancelled the usual warm-weather training camp in Portugal to take the players to cold, wet and windy Leeds. Through the hail and sleet of an edifying week in Yorkshire, a squad showing 15 changes made an important start.

England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster at his first training camp in Leeds in January 2012

Photo: Getty Images

“I made the decision early, started with the new group of players and reminded them of the reason why playing for England was special and focused all my energy and effort on that,” Lancaster explained. “I wanted to get them committing to the team, to the shirt and to each other.

“I think that was the start point for the team, going to Leeds and everything we did there was the catalyst but since then we’ve continued to grow it to a deeper level with the talk about what it means to be English and being a bit more front-footed about being from England.”

The importance of new, hungry individuals who could develop and become a team together is clear in Lancaster’s view on how the right culture is established. It cannot be borne out of one action or event, but builds over time with the participation of all.

The intimate details of the squad’s activities on culture cannot be disclosed; they remain the preserve of those involved. But as a flavour of what goes on, new Test caps speak to the match day squad about why playing for England is special for them and eminent guests been brought in to address the group.

And, to round off the week in Leeds three years ago, the squad were individually presented with testimonies from their parents on why they started playing rugby as children and why they should be proud of what they have achieved. Some of the players were in tears.

It is important to get the players to take possession of the culture but they will only do that if the foundations of humility and honesty are present from the start, as Lancaster explains.

England wing Jack Nowell, who made his debut and started all five RBS 6 Nations matches

Photo: Getty Images

“You want the players to begin to take ownership of it. But they’ll only do that if they trust it and it’s an environment that is motivational, that they know that they can do things without fear of failure or getting dropped without any reason.

“There is a security in the team. And then the ultimate you’re looking for is for the players to drive the culture themselves and you as the coaches become the organisers. And I think we’re getting towards that.”

Lancaster name-checks Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown, Alex Goode and Billy Twelvetrees as the key leaders in his group. They are the standard bearers who espouse Lancaster’s values and drive the squad forward on and off the field.

Looking at them as people as well as rugby players, he will swell with pride to stand alongside them in the tunnel at Twickenham Stadium when the world cup kicks off in earnest in September 2015.

But a culture cannot become complacent, with Lancaster constantly on the lookout for behaviours which positively and negatively affect the group. How does that manifest itself on a day-to-day basis in camp? For example, with 46 players on tour in New Zealand there will be many competitive and at times rightly disappointed individuals in the camp.

“I spend a lot of time with the non-23 players, making sure that they’ve got feedback on why they’re not getting picked and how to get picked, because I think they’re important. I spend time with the senior players to help direct them, motivate them and give them some leadership.

“I’m constantly looking for things that take energy away from the team or could cause damage to the culture. It could be an incident off the field, negative media, a person that has been dropped and he doesn’t like it and he’s gone to change the mindset of one or two of the players around him because he’s not happy.

“I’m always looking out for body language and I use the physios, the conditioners, the masseurs, the people on the ground who see the players on a regular basis to assess mood and the mental state of the players. Often they will naturally manage their image to me a bit more because I’m the coach who makes the decisions.”

England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster watches his squad at a captain's run in Italy

Photo: Getty Images

Lancaster proved his protection of the culture by excluding Danny Care from his initial squad in 2012 after a drink driving incident. The fact that Lancaster has known Care since he was 15 and the Quins man is now his first choice scrum half – missing the final Test in Hamilton with a shoulder injury – only strengthens the principled stance.

“There are definitely non-negotiable actions in my mind,” Lancaster concluded. “I wouldn’t write them down in a list but they’re fairly obvious in terms of the team. Pretty much the players will deal with it, but if the players don’t deal with it then the coaches will and not pick him.”

With a large tour party in a country where England have history, Lancaster’s brave new culture will be tested to the limit. But regardless of the result in the final game of the already conceded series tomorrow, something sustainable is being built for the biggest 12 months in England Rugby’s history and for the future.

And therein is the definitive value in Lancaster’s emphasis on the above. Special individuals in team sports inevitably come and go but culture can be handed down from player to player, generation to generation and ultimately last forever.