The rise and fall of Stuart Lancaster - sport and the narrative of failure

In the days since England’s exit from the World Cup, England coach Stuart Lancaster has seen his reputation ripped apart by both the press and armchair pundits alike. James Fenn, from H+K’s Sports team examines how the narrative of his time as England coach has changed, and what it says about how we view failure in sport

The press reaction to Lancaster has been overwhelmingly negative

Twickenham Stadium, 9:51pm, Saturday 3rd October 2015. As the seconds tick away in England’s defeat against Australia, the World Cup dream is over for Stuart Lancaster’s team. The team that came into the tournament as second favourite with the bookmakers was eliminated just 15 days into the tournament.

In the days and weeks that followed, the campaign has been dissected in the media as every losing England team is after a major finals disappointment. Central to the post-mortem, has been England coach Stuart Lancaster.  His regime has been declared a failure, and while at time of writing his job is still in place, his reputation has taken a blow it may never recover from.

But why has this narrative of blame on the England coach and his staff been taken up quite so quickly? England were second favourites for the tournament, so clearly intelligent people believe Lancaster is inherently a competent coach. They had one of the youngest teams in the competition. Australia are now being called one of the tournament favourites, so surely their brilliance had an impact in England’s defeat?

Lancaster has been positioned as a beaten man in the national pressThe reason this narrative is so pervasive, speaks to a crucial truth in the way Sport is consumed by the public and published by the media. It boils down to the behavioural trait known of narrative fallacy. In essence, the human brain craves simplicity. The explanatory narratives that people find most appealing are those that are concrete, clear and simple. These narratives are infinitely easier to understand than a complicated and nuanced analysis of all the factors that led to a sporting failure.

Matthew Syed, in his excellent book ‘Black Box thinking’ which explores this topic, uses the example of Fabio Capello and the England football team:

“In December 2007, Fabio Capello, an Italian, became head coach of the England football team. He was a disciplinarian. He ordered players to arrive at meetings five minutes early, clamped down on mobile phones and even banned tomato ketchup in the canteen. These actions were highly visible and well reported…the results on the pitch were, at the outset very good.

“Football journalists began to tell a simple and convincing story as to why the team was doing well: it was about Capello’s authoritarian manner. His methods were eulogised. Finally, a coach who was willing to give the players a kick up the rear…

“But at the FIFA World Cup, the biggest competition in the sport, England bombed. They limped through the qualifying stage before being decisively eliminated with a 4-1 defeat by Germany. Almost instantly the narrative flipped. Capello is too tough! The Italian is treating our players like children! Many football journalists didn’t even notice that they had attempted to explain contradictory effects with the same underlying cause.”

Capello was another England coach to feel the sting of the media

The example illustrates the dangers of narrative fallacy. In a rush to produce narratives easily consumable by the public, journalists ignore the fact that they have interpreted the same evidence in two entirely contradicting ways. They also ignored all the other factors that had led to England’s early exit. In many ways, the story is similar with Stuart Lancaster and his England team.

Now, let’s be clear, Stuart Lancaster has never had a perfect approval rating as England coach. His methods have been questioned throughout his tenure, as happens when the results don’t follow. However, heading into the World Cup, the narrative around him and the England team was undoubtedly a positive one. Lancaster had put together a new, young and exciting backline. Players like Joseph, Watson and May had brought an energy and excitement to the England team that lit up the RBS Six Nations. Lancaster was also credited with ‘changing the culture’ of the England team, with his decision to exclude players with poor disciplinary records. The England team went into their home world cup with the momentum of a nation behind them.

Since the tournament, these two pillars of Lancaster’s regime, his young side and his stance on selection, have become the very sticks used to beat Lancaster post-tournament. In the face of an early exit, the England team that were once young and exciting in the eyes of the media, were now inexperienced and unable to take the pressure of a big game. The backline that lit up the six nations became the most common topic of conversation. Why was the inexperienced Sam Burgess included, when Luther Burrell was left at home? Why was the young and exciting Henry Slade included, only to feature only in the meaningless final game? 

Just as heavily scrutinised was the selection policy. As England were blown off the pitch by the Aussies, the questions already began to come: Where was Manu Tuilagi, excluded for an altercation with the police? Dylan Hartley, excluded after a head but for his club side? Danny Cipriani, the bad boy of England rugby who lit up the warm up games? And what about Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon, excluded for plying their trade in France? Lancaster, praised in the past for orchestrating a change in culture for the England rugby team, now became an in-flexible and harsh disciplinarian who left England’s best players at home.

The selection of Sam Burgess has been one of the most criticised elements of the World Cup campaign

This isn’t to suggest that Stuart Lancaster is blameless for England’s failures at the Rugby World Cup. Certainly, the man at the top of England’s coaching tree deserves some blame for the way the campaign played out. But equally the players, the other coaches, the strength of Wales and Australia and the individual minutiae of each of the games played a part in England’s World Cup exit. But constructing a narrative around all these elements is much harder than one that blames England’s coach. The simplicity is the key in narrative fallacy, presenting an option easy to understand and take up. This is how the media approach failure in sport, particularly on a national scale. Stuart Lancaster is just the most recent victim of the way that we consume sporting failure.

Johnny Wilkinson, England’s hero of the 2003 world cup, was in the studio after the Australia game and made a defence of Lancaster that at the time felt like a remarkably erudite piece of analysis:

“You can’t cheat time …We’re responsible for that as well on the outside, we can affect that spirit.

 (John Inverdale - we as the media?)

“ we as everyone…I want to see England win the World Cup as soon as possible, what can I do to help that? If my goal is to sell newspapers, what is my goal to do that, but my goal is to see this team out on the field lifting the world cup.”

What Wilkinson recognised, is the damage that can be done by media narratives to sporting failures. The narratives that emerge after World Cups often become all-encompassing assassinations of an individual. While it is certainly easy to put all the blame on one character, a scapegoat for a failed regime, it hides the true lessons of the tournament. If we simply remove Lancaster, see him as the singular reason for England’s failure, the lessons of team selection, the types of players we select, and how to manage a game, may never be learnt. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has said of narrative fallacies:

“Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple, are concrete rather than abstract, assign a larger role to; talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck, and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative.”

It is clear, that the way we consume failure in sport is driven by this process. While the media strive to produce narratives that are palatable, we are driven to conclusion that is simple, un-nuanced, and often unfair.  The result is a lack of understanding of what really went wrong, and a tendency to repeat our mistakes when the next tournament rolls around. Stuart Lancaster is the most recent victim, but while we continue to follow the pattern of narrative fallacy, we will continue to have sport defined by narratives of failure and repeated mistakes. 

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search