Lancaster’s Gate

The White Tower stands resolute amidst the walls and wards of the Tower of London. If you have ever been to this famous castle on London’s riverbank, the White Tower is unmistakable, positioned as it is, right at the centre of the capital’s landmark. To be precise, the White Tower was a keep or donjon and the strongest structure in this world famous fortification. Its entrance was above ground level and only accessible via a wooden staircase. The Normans thought this best as the staircase could be removed during an attack, making it even harder to gain entry. The Tower provided a dual purpose however, not only was it the safest place in which to retreat, it also provided comfort fit for a king. The well-known military historian Allen Brown said, “The great tower was… by virtue of its strength, majesty and lordly accommodation, the donjon par excellence.” It was powerful yet welcoming, resplendent yet robust; England’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup later this year would do well to be described thus.

On Wednesday the press gathered to hear Stuart Lancaster announce his Six Nations Squad. It was an auspicious occasion. Not just because of the personnel now gathering amongst the white army’s ranks, but also the competition serves as a dress rehearsal for a much larger battle, forming on the horizon.

In selecting his team, Lancaster’s job is difficult. Not least because he needs to find the perfect balance between offence and defence; a team that can score points with style and grace, whilst also withstanding the sledge-hammer blows of international opposition. He needs to create an outfit that is part composer, part bouncer; part magician, part breezeblock; a team that can paint like Michelangelo and punch like Mike Tyson.

The White Tower at the Tower of London houses the magnificent Royal Armouries collection. It is well worth a look (and indeed the wait should you venture in on a school holiday). Armour and arms from as far back as Henry VIII, including the ‘Line of Kings’, an exhibition where you can see how the men in the top job protected themselves down the ages. Interesting then, to see Lancaster bob and weave as the media poked and prodded around his selection. Included in his initial thirty-four man squad were rapier like options such as Eastmond and Joseph, the somewhat blunter cudgels of Corbisiero and the Vunipola brothers, the trusty staff that is Nick Easter and four battlehard lieutenants – Ford, Farrell, Cipriani and Myler – all of whom you could make a case for a starting berth. Injuries to Tuilagi, Morgan and Lawes mean England won’t have everyone on parade come February 6th, but confidence is high that the men in white will have more than enough firepower to rattle Gatland’s roof.

Lancaster as a leader has always interested me. Sober and efficient, unflinching and straightforward, he has put together the England side in his image. In interview, his face gives little away. I imagine painstaking preparation for any dealing with the press. Sat in a room with his team, he has been through every possible question, nothing will surprise him. His answers come out almost deadpan, the occasional raised eyebrow exudes a pleasantness but ultimately, here is a man who won’t dress things up.

In truth, nothing about the England supremo is showy. With this most recent selection, he is doffing his cap in the direction of the more ostentatious player but come final selection, it would be a surprise to see a beefeater like Brad Barritt shunned too easily. Lancaster’s gate has been kept well by players like that. Attitude is sacrosanct; he doesn’t, for instance, care much for swan divers.

The England squad should visit the White Tower ahead of the Six Nations. Take in the history of the building, read what it has withstood. They would learn that some of the country’s greatest battles have been fought against its nearest neighbours. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad place for a Rugby World Cup press conference. This is what Lancaster is trying to build, for that most important of wars; a White Tower. One might say that the modern game is all about keeping people out; the Tower represents this perfectly.

But, you feel, this Stuart won’t be swayed by a jingoistic photo opportunity. In fact, you could say that this has been his most impressive quality. There is little fanfare or flourish. He does things his way. He lays out his principles and sticks to them. You only have to look at his resistance to the case made by Steffon Armitage. The Toulon talisman has had all sorts of people heralding his stats. Nothing, comes the stern reply. The French envoys got more return out of Henry V.

And yet for all his stubbornness, he’s not single minded. He studies the game meticulously and understands when to seek advice. Surrounding himself with an uncompromising group of rugby generals and a summit meeting of non-rugby advisors like Brailsford, Beane and Flower means he can call on their experience as well as his own. A king’s counsel has rarely been so well used.

No, Lancaster wouldn’t visit the Tower. He has, no doubt, a savvy understanding of history. He knows as many leaders perished behinds its walls as were protected. Of course, Lancaster’s fortress sits just southwest of London. And come the autumn, the world will come knocking at his gate.

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Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.

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