ALMOST five years on from leaving Newcastle Falcons John Fletcher returns to Kingston Park on Friday as England’s second-string national side, the Saxons, host their Scottish equivalents.
The former Tynedale, Northampton and Newcastle Gosforth centre has lost none of his trademark enthusiasm for the game, and after four hugely successful years coaching England’s age-group sides has earned a well-deserved senior call-up of his own.
“It has been great to be involved with the Saxons, and I was pleased to get the call,” said Fletcher, whose side defeated the Irish Wolfhounds in Galway last weekend.
“I have been involved with the RFU for four years now working with the under-15s to 19s programme, and the Saxons is a different but enjoyable challenge.
“Working with players who are all full-time professionals again is everything I thought it would be, everything I remember it being and my role here is to look at the backs and attacking play.”
Helping take charge of a squad laden with promise, Fletcher can call upon the explosive talents of Wasps flyer Christian Wade, cross-code convert Kyle Eastmond and former Falcon Tom Biggs, to name just a few.
“The way international rugby works makes it a different challenge in terms of preparation time, and going into last weekend’s game in Ireland we had about two-and-a-half training sessions,” said the ex-Falcons boss, himself an England ‘A’ cap as a player.
“This week there are three sessions plus a team run, which is not a great deal of time in the context of a club coach, but they are good players and a lot of them have been in the England system for a while now through the age grades.
“The scheduling means the work we do is mainly around the organisational side, but it is no big deal and that is always going to be the case when guys are coming together at relatively short notice.”
With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend and places up for grabs, he added: “We try to make what the Saxons do as similar as we can to the senior squad, obviously bearing in mind certain things that we might want to get out of a particular game.
“We are much more aligned with the senior side now than we have ever been during the four years I have been with the RFU, and with the senior England coach Stuart Lancaster having worked at this level before it makes a lot of sense.
“In any professional club your second-team should mirror a lot of what the first-team try to do, and it makes the transition easier when guys get called up.
“If you are going to judge a player it is only fair you judge him on similar criteria to the guys who are higher up.”
Happy to be back on home soil and fully endorsing the Saxons’ concept at a time when many countries are ditching their second-string sides, Fletcher said: “I was delighted from a personal point of view when I heard Friday’s game would be played at Kingston Park.
“In terms of the wider question about the Saxons and the A-team equivalents in other countries, it has huge benefits, especially in a nation like ours with a big playing base. The senior England team will play something like 11 games in a typical year, so adding the Saxons on top of that opens up allsorts of doors in terms of looking at players and mirroring the senior squad.
“By that I don’t just mean playing the same brand of rugby as the full England team, I mean going away with a different group of guys and playing against quality sides from different countries.”
Meanwhile, the Falcons confirmed that their postponed Championship visit of Cornish Pirates will now take place on Saturday, February 23, kick-off 7pm.