By Marcus Leach
Saturday's Millennium Stadium showdown with Wales marks one of England's biggest games in recent history. A chance not only to secure their first Grand Slam in a decade, but to also lay down a marker as serious World Cup contenders, and in doing so prying Wales' grip from the northern hemisphere's premier prize.
Rugby doesn't come much better than this, and in many respects it's down to England's inability to beat Italy by the margin many had expected them to do so. Wales now know that not only can they prevent their fiercest of rivals winning the coveted Grand Slam, but they have a very realistic chance of retaining their crown.
Let us step back from the rugby though, as there is an intriguing match-up off the field; that of head coach Stuart Lancaster against interim coach Robert Howley.
Lancaster, who started life as England coach on an interim basis, the man who turned a disgraced and out of form England team around to earn himself the job on a permanent basis. And Howely, the Welsh assistant coach come interim head coach whilst Warren Gatland takes a sabbatical to focus on British & Irish Lions duties.
One must ask, however, do their differing titles make much difference, to themselves and to their respective squads? We spoke to Nick Robeson, chief executive of Hemming Robeson, the interim management solutions firm, to find out his views.
Life as interim manager for Howley was, until the victory in France this year, something of a baptism of firm; eight straight defeats. This raised serious questions about a lack of leadership within the squad. However as Nick Robeson points out this is not the case.
"On the contrary, the alternative is a rudderless ship," he said. "Teams by their very nature require leadership, the nature of the contract, either permanent or interim, is irrelevant, as it comes solely down to the individuals competence to lead."
And to prove this point we only need to look at England under Lancaster as an interim. 'A rudderless ship' could not have been a more accurate analysis of England when Lancaster took over, but his ability to give the squad direction and leadership took them to second in the final standings of the 2012 tournament. Proof that no matter your title, it is the skill set that you bring that is most important.
Lancaster's ability to come in and give the squad leadership and respect ultimately played a major role in him winning a full-time contract. Since then he has had the time, and safety of a contract, to begin instilling his own philosophies into the players.
"With a permanent contract there is the opportunity to deliver results and change on a more gradual basis. Lancaster has the ability to get to know players and staff in more detail, looking at areas of long term player development," Robeson explained.
Evidence of this comes in the form not just of results, but the morale of the squad. The result that highlights England's development under Lancaster is, without doubt, their emphatic victory over World Champions New Zealand. But perhaps more telling were the remarks from Ben Youngs this week.
“I definitely feel we’re in a stronger position than in 2011 [where England blew a Grand Slam with defeat in Ireland]," he told The Evening Standard. "We have a great sense of collective unity. That’s a huge ethos of the team that steers this group."
Howley's role as interim is slightly different to the more traditional role one might associate here, given that he has been promoted from within, knowing that following this summer's British and Irish Lions tour Gatland will return. This, in many sense, plays to his, and Wales' advantage.
"An interim will come in and try and stamp their authority on a team instantly," explained Robeson. "They have to make an instant impact and start getting results straight away."
But for Howley the building blocks were already in place, and it has been a case of continuing where Gatland left off. That he lost eight straight games would suggest Wales' prior success was simply down to Galtand and the energy and leadership that he brought to the squad. Not so. As since the opening round loss to Ireland, Wales have galvanised themselves and Howley has made several key decisions in that turn around.
There is more than just Grand Slams and titles at stake this weekend, there are coaching reputations on the line as well. A win for Lancaster would further vindicate the RFU's decision to go with him over the much fancied Nick Mallett, and cement his place among the world's leading coaches at present. Whilst a victory for Howley's men could well see him become the natural successor to the Welsh throne as and when Gatland calls time on his reign.
One thing is for certain, come 5pm Saturday their titles will mean nothing, it will be Wales v England, and they don't come much bigger than that in sport.
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