New RFU head admits England's focus is 2015 World Cup

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The Independent Online

Great expectations are not always fulfilled when it comes to the England team, as recent performances in the Six Nations Championship have illustrated all too clearly, so John Steele is probably wise to begin his stint as chief executive of the Rugby Football Union by keeping his hopes and dreams within realistic bounds.

The former Northampton Saints player and coach did not quite write off the national side's chances at next year's World Cup in New Zealand when he made his first pronouncements in public yesterday, but by describing the tournament as "a building block towards 2015", he did not exactly presume victory either.

"We would never go to a tournament not wanting to win it," the ex-UK Sport chief executive said at Twickenham. "But I've joined the RFU after working in the Olympic environment, and the people there know that competitors are more likely to win a medal in their second Games than in their first. The fortunes of the national team are crucial to the feel-good factor in the sport and we all want to see England's ranking higher than it is now, but in my experience it takes eight years to move from talent identification to podium and I need to spend some time understanding where we are in that cycle."

Might this be taken as an indication that Martin Johnson, appointed England manager in embarrassingly mishandled fashion in the spring of 2008, might be given a clear run through to 2015, even if his team live down to expectations 12 months from now? Steele certainly wasn't going that far. But he made it clear that the RFU, transformed commercially by his predecessor Francis Baron, could not afford to countenance a misfire when they host the World Cup in five years' time. "We're the richest union in the world, but we are not a FTSE 100 company," he said. "Profit is fantastic, but 2015 presents us with a massive opportunity and if we are to maximise our potential, what is best for our rugby has to be paramount."

Johnson expects to discover today whether Toby Flood, his first-choice outside-half, will be available for the first of England's four November internationals – a testing little encounter with the All Blacks. Flood, injured while playing for Leicester at Northampton at the weekend, underwent a scan on his mangled left knee yesterday. If, as feared, he has strained his medial ligament, he will almost certainly miss the start of the autumn campaign.

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