Two super powers have axed their coaches for returning normal and somewhat predictable results in 2015.
Meyer’s Boks fell to the All Blacks for the 9th time in 11 matches. Lancaster’s England succumbed to Wales, who they’d been almost level-pegging with (but, on balance, losing to) since the previous world cup. In short, their failure to produce an upset this spring cost them their jobs.
It’s not very logical but when journalists lay down their pens for torches and round up the villagers, unions are basically obliged to raise the gallows.
In fairness, both fellas made their share of mistakes. If that’s all they’d done, though, they might still be here. Problem is, they started making other people’s mistakes as well. As the pressure came on, they lost confidence in their ideas, took too much advice and have now died wondering.
Take a look at Lancaster who, two years ago, was making great progress with England. Sure, he was already a little foggy on midfield and had a strange aversion to picking actual openside flankers but his priorities were otherwise pretty clear. The results weren’t bad, either. England just about always ran the All Blacks close—except for when they were flogging us—and they were scoring a quantity and quality of tries that sat along the very best English sides.
But by the time the world cup came around, he was playing a shell game with almost the entire inside-back division and had hung his hopes on the Hail Mary that was Sam Burgess. England lost their focus so badly that even the scrum imploded. The pool of death was blamed in part for their group-stage departure but, in reality, there’s more than one pool they mightn’t have got out of.
Rumour has it that Stu allowed himself to be led by his assistants. Whatever it was that caused the distraction, something clearly clouded his judgement towards the end.
Meyer’s not as sympathetic of a figure. For starters, he was hired as a ready-made professional coach. With a winning Super Rugby pedigree behind him, rookie mistakes were hardly expected. He threw his weight behind a more expansive game but curiously tried to implement it with the same guys his predecessors had failed with. His philosophy was progressive, his selections regressive.
It wasn’t going well until injuries intervened early this year and he populated the side with bright young things like de Allende, Kriel and de Jager. Those selections suggested that he did in fact have a talent strategy to match his game plan, but he’d left it too late. The youth policy was at least 12 months behind schedule and, even then, he was too scared to stick with it. If de Villiers had been available, Meyer would have picked him. Just as he did with Matfield, Habana and Burger, who, despite all the upside of his bravery, is peripherally blind and symptomatic of the Springboks’ limitations. Meyer wouldn’t push the youth agenda South Africa needed and so his bold, shiny ambition was never properly resourced. He was too easily influenced by the traditionalists.
It all goes to show that being a genius is actually the easy part of coaching. The far bigger challenge is in having the courage to act on those ideas and execute them fully.
Meyer’s dismissal is by far the easiest to understand. He’d been around long enough and should’ve brought more conviction to his role. South Africa ought to beat New Zealand more and lose to Australia less. Their failure was due in no small part to Meyer’s lack of imagination and courage at the selection table. It’s no wonder Hansen wanted him to stay on.
Lancaster, though? I dunno. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—his record in 2015 was 2 losses to SANZAR sides and one loss to Wales. That’s exactly the same as Woodward’s lot in RWC-year 1999…when Wales was shite. Clive got another go, won a world cup and we’ve all been paying for it since. Stu was probably owed the same chance to become an insufferable blight on rugby punditry.
Like Meyer, Lancaster was found wanting at the selection table and lost his bottle as the world cup drew nearer, but this was the first time he’d had the chance to make those sorts of mistakes. His 2015 battle scars could have combined well with a smarter set of assistants to make him a formidable coach in 2019.
As it is, Eddie Jones will get the reins. He’s a flavour-of-the-month selection who specialises in playing small ball, which isn’t exactly England’s thing. Disclaimer here: I’m a sceptic who reckons Eddie’s career is mostly predicated on overseeing the unravelling of Rod Maqueen’s work, so take this for the rant it is. He could go on to do good things with England. It’s just that I think Lancaster could’ve too.