On Tuesday lunchtime Stuart Lancaster addressed the press for the first time from inside the England Rugby World Cup Training Camp; all fifty players had arrived at Pennyhill Park the day before and were in the middle of their first double day of training.
In the opening three weeks at Pennyhill Park before England head to Denver, Colorado, the focus will be purely on the conditioning of this team and only a 'few light skills' with the rugby ball will be included. 'Gruelling', 'unrelenting' and 'pretty grim' are the descriptions that have been shared with me regarding these conditioning sessions and whilst others National sides may be shouting a little louder externally about their 'punishing' regime with 'hypoxic chambers', it will be just as tough for this England squad.
The freshest news of all was that regarding David Strettle's withdrawal from the camp in order to settle himself and his family in France. From the outside looking in this could be perceived to be a 'crazy' decision however when you rationally review the wing position and current order of play you can start to see some sense. The one area to consider though is the fact that injuries often form part of the road to a final 31 and closing the door completely is a very strong course of action. Stuart's viewpoint was this;
"He called me towards the end of last week and as I stated in the press release was pretty much the way that it played out. He had been to France; he'd considered his options and alternatives and decided to withdraw from the camp. Obviously I was disappointed, I said to him have you thought this through? It is a big camp, clearly I'm not going to hold it against you in terms of coming into the camp and as I alluded to in the press on a 50/50 call I'd probably be more likely to go with someone who is going to be around long term, but that wasn't going to stop him from coming to camp. He'd made his decision to withdraw so as a consequence I was left in no other position other than to accept that and look at the next guy in."
Semesa Rokoduguni will join the squad as soon as possible as he flies back from Fiji and have his chance to impress the coaching team who feel that they haven't had a good look at him since his one cap against New Zealand due to injuries. Rokodoguni's physicality, solidity in defence and stature are certainly some of the key attributes that have given him the nod against others that could have come in, Wade for example. Christian Wade is 'still an option for us further down the line' but no commitment has been made to him coming in at all from an England perspective.
There are a few injuries that are hanging over the squad with three guys that are unable to do on their feet work; Alex Goode due to a hip injury, Stephen Myler with an inflamed patella tendon and Luther Burrell with a toe injury. These three will be monitored closely and in spite of a 50 man cap being on a Rugby World Cup Training Squad players are able to be switched in and out due to injury basis. This ability means that certainly in terms of Alex's injury Worcester's Chris Pennell could join the squad next week to train. Stuart shared that he would have liked to have used Chris in the Barbarian's game but was delighted with the manner in which he applied himself to Worcester's Championship Final and Chris remains firmly in England's thoughts.
The main selection decisions that will be made will be in the first week of August, leading into that the first QBE International against France, prior to that every single player will be scrutinised to the nth degree. In terms of the selection criterion Stuart shared that there are a number of areas that the players will be assessed on including what they have done in the past, their form from the last 6 months and their international experience. Others include being a proven leader, being individuals that have delivered under pressure and of course physically ticking the boxes. Some of these are easily measured and I was interested to understand for those players that didn't have the international experience how will these be measured by the selectors. Stuart's shared;
"It [pressure] gets tested a lot more than perhaps you would imagine in training. If every minute of every day you are being watched and assessed, clearly there are physical tests that you can measure performance; you can measure speed, endurance, strength, power and everything else. So they are usually not bad barometers but equally there are times when I've seen unbelievable athletes who have got fantastic physical scores that actually when it comes to decision making, taking the ball to the line and making a decision, they are not as effective as someone whose scores are lower in that regard.
So it is a combination of both, in the first instance the first two or three weeks will deliver a lot of the physical stuff, but as we get into Denver and the rugby stuff starts and we make the sessions 15 on 15, day in day out, week in week out we'll soon find out. To be honest we have a good idea already, we've spent the whole of last season and the season before watching every single minute of every single Premiership game and giving them a score on their ability to perform under pressure, so that is part of what will define selection. The competitiveness that we will make in training will ultimately give us a lot of the answers that we need."
That prior thorough analysis and strong understanding of the capabilities of every player will have formed much of the inputs into the one to one meetings that Stuart is having with every single player this week. These meetings will ensure that each man understands the criterion, on which selection will be based, provides them with individual goals and importantly give the player an idea of where they are in the pecking order.
The road to this point hasn't been smooth however the perspective from inside the camp is to 'work in the now' and deliver with the group that are in front of them as opposed to looking back and saying what if.
Those in charge of the players, both coaches and physical performance specialists, have experience locked in the bank from their playing days or from being part of previous England World Cup Camps. Not all have been successful but refinements have been made and now it is time to put all of those lessons into practice and to formally start the road to September 18th and a home Rugby World Cup.