Stuart Lancaster yesterday insisted his focus was firmly on tomorrow’s RBS Six Nations grudge match in France and not the race to be named England’s permanent head coach.
Lancaster’s stock weakened this week when the Rugby Football Union approached South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach Jake White to be the long-term successor to Martin Johnson.
White yesterday ruled himself out of the running in favour of remaining loyal to his current employers, Brumbies, of Super 15.
But the very fact that he was approached suggests the RFU are seeking someone more experienced than Lancaster to lead England into the next World Cup cycle.
That would put former South Africa and Italy coach Nick Mallett at the head of the queue.
Former Leeds player and coach Lancaster had looked to be in pole position for the role after a creditable audition as interim successor to Martin Johnson.
He has won two games in this year’s championship after orchestrating a change in culture from the on and off-field indisipline that blighted last autumn’s World Cup campaign.
Lancaster will be interviewed for the post before the conclusion of the Six Nations next weekend.
He said yesterday that he had not considered the prospect of working alongside Mallett, and that the race for the job had not been a distraction.
He has the backing of the players who have been enboldened by his clarity, confidence and bold decision making.
But it is new chief executive Ian Ritchie, and his four-man counsel of Sir Ian McGeechan, Conor O’Shea, Richard Hill and Rob Andrew, on who the decision rests.
And with the World Cup being in this country in 2015, it merely adds to the importance of the selection Ritchie will make.
A victory in Paris tomorrow afternoon will strengthen Lancaster’s chances, and to help him achieve that aim he has named the same starting XV that was beaten by grand slam-chasing Wales two weekends ago.
And he insists England’s focus is firmly on the job in hand, knowing a victory could lift the squad up to fourth place in the world.
“It’s never been a distraction. I’ve known from the outset that I was the interim coach and from the outset that there was going to be a process,” said Lancaster.
“And I knew from the outset that people would apply and there would be speculation.
“There are things as a coach you can control and there are things you can’t control. And I prefer to concentrate on the things I can control and I am trying to give the team the best chance of winning.
“Today’s training session was not focused on that. We were more worried about what we were going to do with the scrum and what our attacking lineout was going to be.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the team and giving England the best chance of winning on Sunday. I can assure you that’s what I am focused on.
“Playing France is a benchmark. It’s one of the biggest challenges in international rugby. It’s a massive challenge but one we are really excited about.”
Lancaster’s decision to field the same starting line-up that lost 19-12 to Wales means Farrell is retained at fly-half, despite the return to fitness of Halifax-born Charlie Hodgson.
Hodgson, who started at fly-half with Farrell at inside centre in England’s wins against Scotland and Italy, returns from a finger injury to replace Toby Flood on the bench.
The return of former Leeds lock Tom Palmer on the bench, in place of the injured Courtney Lawes, is the only other change.
Lancaster said: “We were really disappointed to lose to Wales but we took a lot out of the performance and felt it was right to pick the same starting team to go to Paris.
“It was a forced change going into the Wales game but it was an opportunity to have a look at Owen, Brad (Barritt) and Manu (Tuilagi) together and I felt they delivered.
“Lee (Dickson) deserved to keep his spot (at scrum-half) for the tempo and what he brings. Owen, Brad and Manu played well and there was no reason to change it.”
England’s starting line-up features only five of the side that started the 19-12 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in October – Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Tom Croft.
France, who went on to reach the World Cup final, have not lost at home in 10 Six Nations games following their 17-17 draw with Ireland two weekends ago.
Lancaster also dismissed comments from Leicester coach Matt O’Connor that England are a negative side who only ever take the field “trying not to lose”.
Lancaster said: “I’ve learned in this job a lot of people have lots of opinions. I said to the players what matters is the belief inside this room and the direction we are going. We have confidence and self-belief. The players are in a good place and do believe where we are going.”