Putting the building blocks in place
September 20, 2013
The RFU's new head of international player development, Joe Lydon © RFU
When England reached their rugby nirvana in 2003, it seemed scant regard had been given to the years following. Rugby was not just going to end when Jonny Wilkinson effortlessly slotted the ball through the Sydney uprights, the sun was always going to rise the following morning and all of a sudden, England were World Cup holders for the next four years. They had to carry that weight of expectation.
What followed, despite England's surprising journey to the final in 2007, was no sign of succession planning. Veterans were continued to be picked as they plugged the ever increasing holes in England's armoury.
But with Joe Lydon back at the Rugby Football Union, you feel England will not be in that situation again anytime soon.
"One of the considerations and objectives we have, is to get to 2015 and it's not a matter of being on the edge of a cliff and wondering what we're going to do next," the RFU's new head of international player development Lydon told ESPN. "Instead there will be a succession plan in place and the strength in depth.
"As a Union we should not be embarrassed to say we have more player resources than any other. We need to use them and we don't discard players, we find them and we grow them instead of letting them go off the radar."
Lydon, who represented Great Britain rugby league, worked at the RFU from 2000 to 2006 and rejoined the organisation in May charged with preventing a recurrence of 2003 when Stuart Lancaster's men take on the best the world has to offer in two years time.
After leaving the RFU back in 2006 he journeyed back to league and then ended up at the Welsh Rugby Union in 2008 as their head of rugby performance and development.
Alongside Warren Gatland, Lydon helped kick-start their development to where they are today, the best side in the northern hemisphere - ten of their charges started the final Test for the British & Irish Lions in the summer and they have lifted back-to-back Six Nations titles. They also went further than any of the home nations in the World Cup two years ago. And all this after they failed to exit the group stages in 2007.
Wales got their house in order and reaped the benefits.
England have shown these green shoots of optimism under Lancaster and it is Lydon's brief to ensure they are more than a mere flight of fancy and are developed into a strong grounding for the coming years, 2015 and beyond.
Central to Lydon's plans is growing the relationship between the Aviva Premiership, the Championship, the clubs and the Union. Regular playing time is the credo from Lydon and with England the current Junior World Champions, ensuring the large majority of those players do not drop of the radar, is a priority.
Standing alongside new England Sevens boss Simon Amor © RFU
"More and more you will see the profile of the Championship raised, not only because of the media and the broadcasters but also because it is now seen as a true vehicle to develop talent," Lydon added. "It is a very competitive environment. You look at the players who have progressed from the Championship into the Premiership and the Lions, the pathway exists; it's just supporting it and developing that connection.
"We've seen across the sport that it's becoming condensed in time. A player who might have been kicking around at U-16 level, within three or four years might be a British & Irish Lion. We need to maximise the potential we've got and also the available opportunities."
Lydon says England must "relish" the prospect of a home World Cup in two years time, rather than feeling the pressure of the occasion. And as fate would have it for Lydon, sitting alongside Lancaster's England in Pool A are Gatland's Wales. You can feel confident predicting the large majority of Gatland's first XV while England's is still ambiguous. A large part of this is down to the opportunities the youngsters get in Wales, players such as George North and Toby Faletau.
"From where I've come from, sometimes it was despite the system not because of it," Lydon said of player development in the WRU. "Someone like Alex Cuthbert accelerated his development because he had opportunity and played. And he played because at times there wasn't the strength in depth there was in England.
"But we need to make sure we have that strength in depth but also ensure someone like Luke Cowan-Dickie gets the development and the exposure of playing in a highly competitive league.
"You would have seen over the last four or five years, the age of players in the Premiership is starting to drop. Coaches are giving more and more opportunity to young players. Owen Farrell has proved that if you get the opportunity, you can stay in the team."
He has only spent a matter of weeks in the job but Lydon's passion and excitement for the task ahead is palpable. He said the potential in England's pool of talent was a "damned good reason" to take the job. But it's about results.
While Wales are attempting to swat off advances and envious eyes from across the Channel for their world class talent, England are trying to catch up their cross-Severn rivals. The 30-3 demolition handed to Lancaster's team last year showed the gulf between the two teams, but if Lydon starts working some of his magic with England, then it will not be the case for much longer. And that all starts with nurturing that relationship between club and country as they seek to plan for not only 2015, but 2019.
"If you fill your domestic competition with overseas players in key positions, it can be fantastic for the 'product' but it can stifle and suppress home grown talent," Lydon said. "You have to make sure the balance is right. I'm all for quality, experienced players turning out in the competition but you don't want it to be at the cost of developing players who are home grown.
"It's not just England and the international team, it's about making sure there is that tribal element and to be a part of something that's local as well as international. You want to see your world class players playing, but hopefully more and more of them will be English."
Back in the days when he was England's attack coach under Andy Robinson © PA Photos
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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