Appointing Stuart Lancaster as England's head coach was, in the end, a no-brainer.
What could possibly have attracted the Rugby Football Union to someone who has dragged English rugby out of the asylum, won four out of five Six Nations games and charmed virtually the entire country? Had Ian Ritchie unveiled Nick Mallett at Twickenham on Thursday it would have made the government's half-baked "pasty tax" look positively sage.
The RFU certainly believes it has the right man. Ritchie said so repeatedly, nodding in tacit agreement as Lancaster spoke about the universally positive feedback he has received from all quarters since the Six Nations concluded. It is understood all those involved in interviewing the 42-year-old Lancaster were hugely impressed by his interview performance and coaching knowledge. "Stuart was given the job on merit against some very strong competition," said Ritchie. "I think he ticks all the boxes we need." The fact that Lancaster could walk unrecognised into most of the world's Test grounds is not regarded as a problem.
If only from that perspective England have made a refreshing choice. "It is a shot in the arm for all the people out there who believe in coaching," said Lancaster, not attempting to disguise his pride at having leap-frogged a queue of other bigger-name contenders. His next trick will be to ensure public faith is still intact at Christmas, by which time England will have played seven Tests against southern hemisphere teams. Some are openly whispering the former PE teacher's side will do well to win even a couple of them. Then again they predicted something similar in January and ended up being comprehensively wrong.
Lancaster is certainly not about to sit around waiting for fate to bite him on the backside. Already his mind is racing ahead to the next challenge, the three-Test tour to South Africa in June which, as he admits, will give England a more accurate idea of where they stand than a hurly-burly Six Nations did. After taking a well-earned family holiday overseas next week, he will make a point of going around all 12 Premiership clubs to share his thoughts on what the 40-man tour squad might look like so that everyone can plan accordingly. It will emphatically not be an end-of-term jolly, nor a chore for those selected. "I'm not naively going to say we're going to win five tour matches out of five but the team will show the same commitment and structural organisation as in the Six Nations," he pledged. If there is bound to be a brief, understandable period of self-congratulation, it will not last long.
England have finally remembered that winning World Cups is a long-term process. Those who will roar with disapproval at the first sign of an English defeat by the Springboks should keep that in mind. Of course results matter but long-lasting achievement takes time.
"We need to use the next 18 months really carefully in terms of developing the squad, the culture and the game plan," stressed Lancaster. "From that point onwards we need two years leading into the World Cup of stability and continuity to allow the players the necessary experience and to develop leadership on and off the field. They need an intuitive sense of what they're going to do under pressure. The pressure that will come on in the World Cup is unique." Concentrating on the next game is all very well but English rugby has also been dying for a little vision from someone prepared to embrace the opening lines of Psalm 121 and lift up their eyes unto the hills.
It must be hoped Lancaster is given time to do so. The last caretaker promoted to take charge of a national team permanently was Scotland's Frank Hadden, another teacher with a holistic view of life. That did not end happily but galvanising the Scottish team has proved tough for all and sundry for a decade and more. History also suggests Lancaster is ahead of the curve from an England perspective. When Sir Clive Woodward first took charge of England in 1997 he failed to win any of his first five games. Martin Johnson won two of his first seven. Brian Ashton lost six of his first 10. Andy Robinson lost four of his first six. By the standards of what has gone before, Lancaster is already in credit after a mere eight weeks in the job.
Best of all, Lancaster knows the job has only just begun. He knows England are still a work in progress in terms of midfield attacking variations. He is fully aware that spirited defence and a strong team ethic will take his squad only so far against the world's top teams. Already he can sense the flaming heat of public expectation which will have reached boiling point by the time the 2015 World Cup comes round. Even his grass-roots fans will not settle for gallant semi-final defeat then.
As Woodward can tell him, however, the world will be his Oyster card if he can somehow lift England out of their default setting of solid perseverance and conjure something truly special. No international coach in history has ever been appointed with a guarantee of success, yet many have been installed with less to recommend them than Lancaster. Warren Gatland, Steve Hansen, Robbie Deans and Co may have considerably more Test miles on the clock but anyone who underestimates the new driver of England's chariot will be making a mistake.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Unofficial England Rugby