As Stuart Lancaster looks back on his first 25 games in charge of England, he can point to a vast improvement from the shambles he inherited after the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
England had been dumped out of the tournament in a 19-12 defeat by France, and their players’ attitudes were coming under question with reports of mid-tournament nights out and impromptu swims off the back of moving vessels.
Great player though Martin Johnson had been, his tenure as the manager of the national side was disastrous.
Step forward a quietly spoken northerner, asked to mind the shop while the RFU courted the world’s biggest names in coaching. Stuart Lancaster picked up the wilting petals of the Red Rose and began to bring it back to life.
As the games of his interim appointment ticked by, the results continued to come, the "culture" of the side appeared to be changing and, following a Six Nations campaign in 2012 that brought three away wins and a second-place finish, the name no one had mentioned before he was given the role temporarily was now set in stone.
Lancaster was England’s man and England were fast becoming his team. There have been bumps in the road—defeats to all of the big three from down south and that harrowing night in Cardiff—but there is much more to be impressed with than to question.
In particular, there have been some performances for the ages from Lancaster’s England, matches those who were there will recount to their kids in years to come.
These are Lancaster’s famous five.
When England entered the 2012 Six Nations, Lancaster was carrying out his live audition for the top job.
The Yorkshireman was holding the fort as interim head coach while the suits at the RFU considered their options following the departure of Martin Johnson.
Inexperienced at the top level and nobody’s idea of the big-name coach such a prestigious job can attract, it was up to Lancaster to prove he was capable as the odds favoured the vastly more experienced Nick Mallett or fellow South African Jake White.
No better place to do that than in the French’s back yard. It had been an unspectacular but solid start to his reign with a 13-6 win over Scotland at Murrayfield and a 19-15 defeat of Italy in Rome before Wales stormed Twickenham to claim a 19-12 win.
Then came their penultimate fixture, a daunting trip for an inexperienced coach of a callow side to the Stade de France.
Lancaster’s England played like men possessed, romping to a 14-3 lead with tries from Manu Tuilagi and Ben Foden.
France hit back to make it 15-17 and test England’s nerve, but they replied manfully with Tom Croft’s try, then held the French out after Wesley Fofana got them within a score of victory.
This was the result that swung the vast majority of support fully behind Lancaster as the man the RFU had to choose, the Telegraph's Mick Cleary summing up the mood of the rugby public after this win:
The win also sees them rise two places to fourth in the world rankings. That doesn’t look too bad on anyone’s CV. Good timing: Lancaster’s trump card. The mob will be erecting scaffolding at Twickenham if they deny him now.
Lancaster was enduring a torrid first summer tour as head coach in South Africa. He had seen his side beaten 22-17 and 36-27 by the Springboks as they headed into the final Test of the series.
But, on a hiding to nothing, England’s players produced a steely performance to earn a draw from a match that could so easily have run away from them.
After a nip-tuck 50 minutes, they led 11-9 thanks to Danny Care’s try and a penalty each from Toby Flood and Owen Farrell.
But Dylan Hartley’s yellow card on 51 minutes prompted a comeback from the home side as JP Pietersen crossed to make it 14-11 after the hour mark.
A side with less togetherness may have wilted in those last 20 minutes, but Lancaster’s men showed signs of the resolve they are fast becoming associated with by denying the 'Boks any further scores and taking their chance to level through Farrell’s boot with nine minutes left.
A draw is seldom celebrated as a landmark result, but it was described by ESPN Scrum’s Graham Jenkins thus:
England's failure to beat South Africa in a Test that they should arguably have won in Port Elizabeth is in danger of over-shadowing what may well come to be viewed as a significant step in their development ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Having seen the free-flowing, try-scoring capabilities of Lancaster’s burgeoning side against New Zealand in the autumn of 2012, the conditions in the Irish capital in the following Six Nations Championship required a different game plan and a will of iron.
On their previous visit to the Aviva Stadium, Martin Johnson’s England had been gunning for a Grand Slam and were taken apart by a rampant Irish side.
Two years later, where indiscipline and a lack of composure under pressure had seen them fold like a cheap deck chair, their 2013 performance was one of true grit.
In a marked difference from their 24-8 defeat of 2011 in which Ben Young’s sin-binning prompted a capitulation, this time—when James Haskell was shown yellow—England sucked up their resolve and held firm.
Even when the momentum should have swung Ireland’s way after Rona O’Gara pulled Ireland level at six points a piece, England didn’t break.
Their pressure reaped rewards with two further penalties coughed up by Ireland that Owen Farrell nervelessly slotted to seal a battling win in tough conditions.
Former England hooker Brian Moore identified the significance of the victory in the Telegraph:
Although the margin of England’s 12-6 win does not appear large it was the way in which it was achieved that should satisfy coach Stuart Lancaster. It is another test passed; another brick laid. In the cauldron of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin a lesson in discipline was learned by this young, but rapidly maturing side.
The significance of this victory in England’s long-term development is yet to be fully unveiled, but as a standalone performance, it is definitely one of the best on Lancaster’s CV.
With the arrival of Grand Slam and Triple Crown-hunting Ireland at HQ, England knew any chance of keeping their title hopes alive depended on beating a confident, experienced outfit.
Having wasted one gilt-edged chance when Jonny May blundered early on, Rob Kearney’s try early in the second half looked to have taught England a harsh lesson in clinical rugby.
But they rode that shift in the game’s flow and came roaring back from 10-3 down to create a well-worked try for Danny Care, courtesy of a brilliant run from the man fast becoming the best player in Europe right now, Mike Brown.
Their work was far from done having regained the lead, however. They withstood a huge barrage of pressure from Ireland with a defensive effort full of guts but one that also stood testament to the organisation and discipline instilled by their coaching team.
The aim of making Twickenham a fortress before the 2015 World Cup, when they will have to overcome both Wales and Australia there, was given a huge boost.
The All Blacks arrived at Twickenham in the autumn of 2012 looking to extend a run of 20 unbeaten games.
They had swept all before them on their tour of the Northern Hemisphere and faced an England side whose record under Stuart Lancaster against Southern Hemisphere opposition was poor.
Two game defeats and a plucky draw on a summer tour to South Africa seemed to promise much, but their autumn programme saw that progress go into reverse gear with poor performances that yielded losses to Australia and the Springboks at HQ.
The odds of a win against the best side in the world were not in their favour.
But there was no customary fast start from Steve Hansen’s side. Instead the English back row was unsettling New Zealand at the breakdown and they were conceding penalties. By half-time, England had held their own and Owen Farrell had given them a 12-0 lead.
Then, inevitably, New Zealand started the second half rejuvenated, and the optimism that had begun to swell around the old concrete complex of Twickenham was quickly stifled.
Tries from Julian Savea and Kieran Read made it a one-point ball game. But rather than lie down and die, England wrenched back the momentum.
Brad Barritt escaped through a gap in the black-shirted rearguard and set Manu Tuilagi free down the left hand touchline. Tuilagi returned the ball to his midfield colleague as he was bundled into touch and Barritt gave England hope.
A stunned New Zealand side seemed to be staggering, and when Tuilagi then burst on to a flat pass on halfway, he put Chris Ashton away for a second England try in front of a home crowd starting to get giddy at the prospect of victory.
They were soon pinching themselves repeatedly when Tuilagi gobbled up a wayward pass from Read and romped home.
A late Savea try could not take the gloss off a famous win that sent expectations for what this young side could do through the roof. This was undoubtedly Lancaster's finest hour.