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Change in the air for new England

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Tom Fordyce | 16:31 UK time, Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Dig the new breed. If anyone had wondered how much impact a mere interim coach could really have on England rugby, Stuart Lancaster's first squad announcement put them right.

It wasn't just the 15 changes to last August's 32-man elite player squad, the nine uncapped players or the four others who have only one international cap apiece.

With everything from the Leeds venue to his training-ground appearance and the informal atmosphere around him, Lancaster is signalling a very clear break with the discredited past. "This," he said firmly, "is a new era for England."

If there's something not quite right about the house of Lancaster being established in the heart of Yorkshire, this is less about wars of roses and more about battles for hearts and minds - those of England supporters, disenchanted and disenfranchised by the very public sins and failings of the previous regime.

Calum Clark

Calum Clark was a surprise inclusion in England's Six Nations squad. Photo: Getty Images

The words 'World Cup' were barely mentioned. New Zealand didn't get a look-in, let alone Martin Johnson, rogue mouthguards or dwarves.

Instead, the talk was of energy being channelled, pipelines of talent, opportunity and responsibility. It wasn't so much don't look back in anger as don't look back at all.

Johnson's starting XV for last autumn's quarter-final defeat by France featured seven players over the age of 30. Lancaster has sent most of those old footsoldiers back to barracks, wheeling in the young guns to replace them on the front line.

Jonny Wilkinson, Lewis Moody and Steve Thompson were already in international retirement. Andrew Sheridan and Richard Wigglesworth have long-term injuries.

But Johnno stalwarts Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto, Nick Easter, Shontayne Hape and Riki Flutey have all been cut, and Matt Banahan and Delon Armitage dropped into the second-string Saxons.

Leading the charge in their place is 20-year-old Owen Farrell, stand-out star of an impressive Saracens backline, but the fresh faces are everywhere: Farrell's team-mate Brad Barritt, Quins duo Mike Brown and Jordan Turner-Hall, and Northampton's Lee Dickson and Calum Clark.

In some ways this is the easy part for Lancaster and his coaches, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. Those players have been lighting up the Premiership.

The desire among England supporters to see some given their chance is unarguable. By picking so many Lancaster is creating expectation and excitement where before there was cynicism and disillusionment.

The tougher questions will be asked by the hard yards and big hits of the Six Nations. Three of England's five matches are away from home, with Murrayfield on 4 February a fiery baptism for the new kids on the block.

Lancaster admits the other sides have a stability and consistency of selection that he does not.

Should England struggle in Scotland, or fail to deal with a Welsh assault at Twickenham a few weeks later, will Lancaster stick with such an inexperienced outfit as they head to Paris in early March?

For now at least he has breathing space. And he will attempt his transformation in an environment in which he feels completely at home - 20-odd miles north of Kettlethorpe High School, where he used to teach PE; even closer to the Leeds RFU Academy he ran for five years from 2001.

The last we saw of Johnson was in sunny Auckland. His team announcements in the UK were made in the bucolic splendour of Pennyhill Park, Bagshot.

West Park RFC in Bramhope, where Lancaster will base his squad before their Six Nations opener at Murrayfield, is a rather different place - grassroots where Pennyhill is high society, convivial rather than Chelsea tractors and retired colonels.

The clubhouse bar goes big on local ales. Grey clouds drop anchor overhead.
Lancaster, who sometimes helps coach the under-11s side here, arrives in tracksuit bottoms and polo shirt and gives an animated 45-minute presentation to the assembled media about the way he wants his England side to play.

The key on-field message is one of speed - of delivery at the breakdown, of alignment in the backs, of supporting line-breaks.

He shows video clips of his Saxons side in training and tries scored by the St Helens rugby league team.

There is barely a blazer in sight. The impression is unavoidable: I am a coach, and I get my boots dirty.

Johnson's England were never quite as remote and uninspired as the dismal World Cup campaign of last autumn seemed to suggest.

A year ago they comprehensively outplayed Wales in their Six Nations opener and appeared an outfit on the rise, while Warren Gatland's team - on a winless streak of eight matches - seemed to be spiralling in the opposite direction.

The two nations even won the same number of matches in New Zealand. But while England's four victories were turgid affairs, overshadowed by the entertainment some players found in nightclubs, hotel rooms and harbours, Wales combined youth with adventure to thrill both their fans and neutrals. Lancaster wants his England to do the same.

His time is limited. Unless miracles of the Grand Slam variety happen this spring, his is likely to be a two-month interregnum.

Stuart Lancaster

Stuart Lancaster has moved quickly to give several fresh faces a chance. Photo: Getty Images

The squad will be back at Pennyhill Park for the remainder of their Six Nations training sessions. By the time of the next World Cup Lancaster's brief sojourn may well be forgotten, relegated to a foreword as new chapters are written.

The man himself prefers to think of it as a launching pad for successes that might lie ahead. In four years' time the World Cup will be held in England.

By then, he hopes, the tender young buds he has planted this week will have flowered into world-beaters.

"We've got a fantastic opportunity here," he says. "We have to build a foundation through to [the summer tour to] South Africa, the autumn internationals and beyond.

"We want to play a game that excites people. We need to develop a new group of leaders - good characters, good people, talented players. This squad has potential for now, but also for the future. The players are excited and us coaches are excited."

When the news conference is finished, Lancaster wanders through to where the assembled scribes are hammering away at their laptops.

Over a packet of crisps he talks enthusiastically about his plans for the week ahead.
Johnson would never have done that in a million years. Change is in the Yorkshire air.

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