ENGLAND full-back Mike Brown is not prepared to sidestep the question of what constitutes the minimum requirement for his side at this autumn’s World Cup on home soil: “Winning it. Winning it or else none of us will be happy.”
His is a bold statement for a player who could be forgiven for assuming a glass ceiling exists in international rugby, after England flat-lined to finish runners-up for the fourth successive Six Nations last month.
Rewind to the 2012 championship and Brown was a late replacement for centre Brad Barritt in England’s opener, a 13-6 victory against Scotland which represented a first successful assignment at Murrayfield for eight years.
Perhaps more significantly, the clash was head coach Stuart Lancaster’s first game in temporary charge, and his stock has since risen sufficiently to earn the security of a six-year contract.
Brown’s career has also followed an upward trajectory. He is a near-automatic pick for Lancaster these days and retains a tight grip on the No15 shirt, despite continued interest from Alex Goode, Chris Pennell and the injured Ben Foden.
The 29-year-old Harlequins back has witnessed the current regime from its infancy, winning 35 of his 37 caps under Lancaster’s stewardship, and maintains that a lack of major silverware during his reign is not symptomatic of England plateauing.
“We’re definitely genuine World Cup contenders and definitely have a realistic chance,” Brown told City A.M.
“We’re not happy with second. That’s not being arrogant, it’s just the belief we have in the squad, where we see ourselves and how far we’ve come as a team. Four second-place finishes in as many years at the Six Nations is frustrating but there has definitely been a clear progression and evolution in that time.
“Stuart Lancaster has taken it from quite low down when he came in to where it is today. The progression is massive in terms of the culture and that club environment we have. In terms of our performances, we know there is still so much more in us, which is exciting.
“The fact we almost won the Six Nations without our supposed full team goes to show how much strength in depth we have got and we’re definitely right up there in terms of squad quality. It’s going to be an unbelievably tough selection when it comes around to cutting players for the World Cup squad. I don’t envy Stuart at all.”
Murmurings persist over the potential for Lancaster to strengthen his hand further by overriding the England hierarchy’s decree that he only selects players who pursue their club rugby overseas in undefined exceptional circumstances.
Reigning European player of the year Steffon Armitage is seen as the principal beneficiary if such a clause was to be invoked. The former London Irish back-row forward is in the midst of another productive campaign for defending Top 14 champions Toulon.
The salary cap in domestic rugby’s top flight will rise £500,000 to £5.5m per club next season in a renewed bid to stave off an exodus of English talent post-World Cup, although Brown has little sympathy for those who trade in the Premiership for foreign climes.
“There are rules in place for certain reason. We all know the rules before we sign for any club in England, France or anywhere,” added Brown, an ambassador for Land Rover’s World Cup campaign, which aims to champion the grass-roots game.
“If you choose to go abroad, you know the rule is you cannot play for England. That’s your choice. By joining an overseas club, you’re saying that you’re happy with not playing for England. You can no longer worry about selection.
“I’m sure over half the England squad could have moved abroad because they’re all quality players but they have all chosen to stay in England because they want to play for England.
“Those are the rules and we stick by them. If overseas-based players want to play for England then come and play in England.”