RUGBY UNION: Jack Rowell, the England manager, recently warned that lack of emerging talent could thwart his ambition of competing with the southern hemisphere superpowers. Steve Bale examines the extent of the problem, including at grass-roots level (right), and argues that many of the wounds are self-inflicted
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The England team to play South Africa will shortly be picked and the protracted debate has exposed the fallacy that the English had not only developed themselves a successful team but also a production-line to sustain that success.

How wrong we were to imagine that during the watershed Geoff Cooke years England had a structure - from schools through age-group sides and England A all the way up - to go with the team. Now that a generational change is finally needed, it cannot be made because the ready-made internationals that we thought were being produced do not after all exist.

Rob Andrew may already have made up Jack Rowell's mind for him by suddenly retiring, but Carling, Rory Underwood, Moore and Richards can hardly still be around at the 1999 World Cup and, no matter how much Cooke's successor as a manager may wish to change now, he finds himself frustrated.

"Half the current England team, for the proper reasons, will disappear in the relatively short term and we need to have people ready to come in and take over," Rowell said. "But there aren't many knocking on the door.

"We have a lot of good club players but a paucity of numbers when it comes to people who can come in and cope with what's happening on the international field today. The more you get into it, the more you look at the players, the more you think they need another season.

"We don't challenge them effectively and not least we don't appear really to focus on the 16 to 21 year olds where a lot of talent comes up and seems to evaporate."

The Rugby Football Union has addressed this critical issue by appointing John Elliott, hitherto one of Cooke's and then Rowell's fellow-selectors, as national player development officer with a brief to fill the sub-international hiatus that not long ago we had been led to believe had ceased to exist.

Inevitably there are excuses, one of them all too familiar. "It's like most other sports in England: we have so many players that if you miss one you don't worry because there'll always be another one coming along," Elliott said. "That's the wrong attitude, but it's understandable.

"We had the excuse that it was difficult sorting the wheat from the chaff, spending too much time on selecting rather than developing because of the numbers at our disposal. It's only when we look in admiration at countries like Scotland or Australia, who have a very limited number of players, and see how they get on with it that we appreciate how blessed we are."

That said, there is a palpable feeling that England are not maximising even the resources they do identify. Take Andy Gomarsall: when Kyran Bracken was injured during the recent World Cup the Wasps scrum-half was summoned from the A-team tour of Australia as a temporary stand-by, only for Rowell to complain that, as Gomarsall had seldom played first-team rugby, he was having to take his international potential on trust.

The club-v-country complaint was obvious, that if Gomarsall was an England scrum-half in the making he should be spending every domestic Saturday playing First Division rugby and not sitting on the bench or representing Wasps seconds.

Rowell has had cause to repeat his admonition this season, though the addition of Steve Bates to the list of defectors to Newcastle has crystalised Wasps' scrum-half priorities. Yet at the same time the Wasps centre Nick Greenstock, another member of the England squad, has been done no favours by the self-same club while he has continued to languish in the second string.

There are others, but the point Rowell is making is that it is a self- inflicted wound when the progress of the Gomarsalls and Greenstocks, or of a prop like John Mallett at his old club Bath, is being quite deliberately impaired, when at certain clubs so many players good enough for the First Division are kept on the fringe.

This is another issue, concerned with the RFU's qualification policies for transferred players. "What would happen in soccer is they would play for, say, Bristol City for a season or two and then when they were ready move on to, say, Liverpool," Elliott said.

"Perhaps the new structures that are being worked out will make this sort of process easier to achieve. At the same time, it's not complacent to say that the playing structure was in place but it's true to say the development structure wasn't. We've overcome huge hurdles since 1988.

"Pre-1988 the fitness standards were very poor but we've done something about that. The skill deficiency of our players is still there and we have to motivate them to put it right themselves. If a golfer's swing wasn't right he would go and hit 100 balls a day and we have to do the equivalent of that in rugby."

Thus Richard Hill and Nigel Melville, two ex-England captains, have been assigned to work a one-to-one with Gomarsall, Rob Kitchin and Matthew Dawson, the scrum-halves who follow Bracken in the England pecking-order since Dewi Morris's retirement. Elliott has an elite developmental squad of 22 specifically singled out for their England potential.

Mind you, the very fact that his appointment has now been deemed necessary tells its own story. And, as this former England reserve hooker would graciously admit, much of what he is doing in identifying the best young talent, closely monitoring progress and providing individual tuition, seems so obvious you wonder why on earth no one had thought of it before.

In any case, the news is not all bad. "We could name 15 players who have not been our first choices but would walk into some other teams: Hopley, Diprose, Jenkins, De Glanville, Hunter and others. So the players are there, but both Geoff and Jack have encouraged stability and now that we need to make changes it will take a while for prospective internationals to become so street-wise that they are worthy internationals.

"When any sport seems to hit a bad patch, everyone cries out 'where is the youth?' But a youth policy is not to thrust people in at 19; it is a policy where good young players develop into international players." Of whom England evidently need a whole lot more.