English rugby unveiled a shiny new initiative for the future on Tuesday in the shape of a new performance academy for its brightest talent, a reminder to the senior squad that everyone has a shelf life.
When the country's current elite players gather for autumn Test training duty next month they will also discover on-field expectations have risen, with the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, seeking victories over all the major southern hemisphere powers at Twickenham.
Lancaster would dearly love to beat Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in consecutive weeks to ensure a top-four seeding when the pool draw for the 2015 World Cup is made in early December. On top of that it is clear his young team can no longer regard themselves as a work in progress. Lancaster, after 10 months in charge, has thrown away his international L-plates and wants England to follow suit.
As a further signal that no one's place is safe he is even refusing to guarantee that Harlequins' Chris Robshaw will remain as England's captain for the QBE autumn series. Northampton's Dylan Hartley is actually the man in possession, having led England to a draw in their final Test against South Africa in Port Elizabeth in June. While Robshaw is the obvious frontrunner, Lancaster clearly sees motivational value in delaying any announcement for another month.
No final decision will be taken on either captain or squad before England meet for a training camp at the national football centre in Burton upon Trent the week prior to their opening Test against Fiji at Twickenham.
"Clearly Chris has done a fantastic job and there's no reason why he wouldn't be strongly considered for the autumn," said Lancaster. "But it's too early to say this guy is going to be captain. He could get injured as he was for the third Test in South Africa when Dylan stepped up. Whilst Chris was missed on the field, Dylan did a fantastic job captaining the side. That we got a performance out of the team on the back of a long hard season for English rugby was credit to Dylan and the rest of the players in that team."
Lancaster now wants to take the next step, conscious the clock is already ticking in terms of identifying his 2015 World Cup squad. He and his coaches plan to attend next month's Championship Test between South Africa and New Zealand in Soweto and have already been discussing the different tactical obstacles heading their way. "There are some great challenges coming and the aim will be to win the games," stressed Lancaster. "As the squad matures, quite rightly we should be confident about taking these sides on."
He is also planning to ring the selectorial changes in a couple of positions, with injuries casting doubt over certain individuals. Ben Foden is already sidelined while Tom Croft's recovery from a neck problem is unlikely to see him back in competitive action until the end of October at the earliest. Ben Youngs, Alex Corbisiero and Louis Deacon, however, are all hoping to be fit within the next three weeks while Bath's David Wilson has been elevated to the senior EPS squad in place of Matt Stevens, who has retired from international rugby.
Saracens' Mako Vunipola has been promoted to the Saxons and others may follow if their form demands it. "The side which starts against Fiji won't be the one that finishes against New Zealand," confirmed Lancaster.
The coaching team has already been rejigged, with Mike Catt now a permanent fixture as skills coach and Andy Farrell back in the fold. Lancaster, a former back-row forward, was refreshingly honest about Catt's hiring, aware England's attacking game needs sharpening. "It's an area where I felt I couldn't deliver enough detail. I'd worked on the overall attacking framework but I was struggling to give the detail to the players in terms of improving their attacking skills. Mike has clearly come in to look at that area, not just in the senior squad but in those players who will potentially join them in the next 12 months."
Accelerating the development of the next generation is also the rationale behind the performance academy – sponsored by BMW – with Leicester's George Ford, Wasps' Elliot Daly and Joe Launchbury and London Irish's Anthony Watson among the 30 inductees. All are regarded as potential senior internationals and will receive relevant support, including personal development training, work experience and even driving lessons, to help them maximise their potential on and off the field.
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