Martin Johnson admitted yesterday that telling his former captain Steve Borthwick that he was dropped from the England squad was "one of the toughest conversations of my life".
Borthwick had been the regular England captain under Johnson despite being criticised in many quarters until he injured his troublesome knee during his side's 15-15 Murrayfield draw with Scotland on 13 March. The Leicester flanker Lewis Moody was appointed England captain, only the second leader under Johnson, for the trip to France for what proved a much-improved performance in a frustratingly narrow 12-10 defeat.
England then had a heartening 1-1 series draw in Australia in June with Moody firmly established as captain. By the time Borthwick returned from honeymoon last month Johnson had relegated him from the Elite Player Squad to the Saxons.
"Conversations don't get any tougher than mine with Steve Borthwick because I always believe people should get what they deserve, but in Steve's case, he didn't. It was one of the toughest conversations of my life," Johnson said.
"It was my call and I took the decision because of the strength in depth we have at second-row. But it was a tough call. Steve just said, 'I'll prove you wrong', which is precisely the attitude you want. There was no moaning or complaining, just a determination to get back in action for his club."
Johnson refused to commit Bath's recent signing Moody to long-term rule as captain because, he insisted, there are a number of natural leaders in the 32-man squad. But it will be something of a shock if Moody is not captain when England face New Zealand in their opening autumn international.
Johnson will have to make a number of tough calls between now and the completion of the 12 Tests England will play between the arrival of New Zealand on 6 November and the trip to play Ireland at their rebuilt Lansdowne Road in Dublin on 27 August. Two weeks later, England will play Argentina in their opening World Cup tie in New Zealand.
He said: "There's big pressure on the guys from here on in because anyone who thinks they are comfortable won't be around for long. This time next year we'll be playing our World Cup warm-up Tests so there won't be much time to pause for breath.
"It's the job of England's management to manage the players the very best way we can in terms of the number of games they play. But, as some players discovered in Australia, making the step up is very tough.
"For example, Olly Barkley played well enough for Bath to earn his place on the plane to Australia, but now he is out of the squad because there are areas of his game he needs to work on. That step up from club to Test level means an increase in intensity and brutality."
What rankles with Johnson is the suggestion from certain quarters that England beat Australia in the second Test because of a "change of mentality". He made it very clear that the only change was England's superior level of execution in Sydney.
"We tried to do the same things in both Tests, but simply did them far better in the second game. The coaches did very well dealing with the three areas we felt required fine-tuning, and the win was well-deserved," said Johnson.
"Beating Australia there was a big step up, but now we need to take that on against New Zealand who, in terms of results, are the world's No 1 team."
England's work during the season's first squad-gathering this week is about individual skills rather than an overall structure; about what Johnson and his coaching staff want the players to do during the autumn.
There were 11 changes to the squad named for the Six Nations in January – David Attwood, George Chuter, Dan Cole, Paul Doran-Jones, Hendre Fourie and Tom Palmer come in in the forwards and Chris Ashton, David Strettle, Mike Tindall, Dominic Waldouck and Ben Youngs in the backs.
Riki Flutey and Andrew Sheridan are back in training. Sheridan played 50 minutes for Sale against Clermont-Auvergne last week.
Johnson dismissed the absence of Jonny Wilkinson from the week's activity as a non-issue. "Jonny has an injury that's clearing and he wants to be fit to play for Toulon. A few guys are missing because they are recovering from knocks."
World Cup countdown
England's 12-Test run-in:
6 Nov: New Zealand (h); 13 Nov: Australia (h); 20 Nov: Samoa (h); 27 Nov: South Africa (h); 4 Feb: Wales (a); 12 Feb: Italy (h); 26 Feb: France (h); 13 Mar: Scotland (h); 19 Mar: Ireland (a); 6 Aug: Wales (h); 13 Aug: Wales (a); 27 Aug: Ireland (a)