SIR CLIVE WOODWARD has made an impassioned defence of A team rugby - and hinted that England's determined quest for regular fixtures could see them target overseas opposition.
England will play just one A game this season - against France in Perpignan next Saturday.
It follows the Six Nations A tournament's demise, after countries like Wales and Scotland pulled the plug on their respective representative teams for financial reasons.
Woodward, though, has launched a concerted campaign to see regular A team matches reappear on next season's Six Nations agenda.
And if that does not happen, then England will look else-where, with South African Super 12 sides possibly proving an attractive alternative.
"The A team last year was fundamental almost to England winning the World Cup, because it meant that we got our selection right. We are able to see players in a different environment from club level," said Woodward yesterday.
"Playing for the clubs is fantastic, and we owe a lot to the Zurich Premiership, but there is no substitute for playing in the international arena.
"The A team was very successful for England last year, and to only have one game this season has set us back a bit.
"I think it is important for the Six Nations Championship. I can't believe that the other countries don't want it as much as we do. It is absolutely critical for the development of all the countries.
"I think the current situation is based on financial reasons, but I am lobbying pretty hard for the people who make these decisions to get it reinstated next year.
"If not, I will be pushing hard for England to have four other fixtures against other teams - it's that important to the overall plan of what we do," he added.
"I would rather do it under the Six Nations banner, and play like we've always done every weekend - full international, A and under-21s. That would be my preferred choice.
"The Super 12 teams in South Africa are looking for fixtures at this time of year. We've seen them coming here in the past few seasons, playing against the likes of Harlequins and Sale.
"I think they would rather much play an England representative team. I can only do so much in terms of banging the table, but if we want to keep progressing, then we can't go back-wards in any way.
"I get a little bit agitated when I see us going backwards in any area. I don't think we will be short of getting the right fixtures if we needed them, but it would be better, for obvious reasons, for the guys to play in a proper competition."
While an England A side containing the likes of Mike Tindall, Mike Catt and Henry Paul prepare to face France, Wood-ward's world champions face their biggest Six Nations test so far on Saturday.
Although Ireland have not won at Twickenham since 1994, and England boast a 22-Test unbeaten record on home soil stretching back to the 1999 World Cup, Woodward expects a fierce battle.
"Ireland blew Wales away last time out, and we saw the proper Ireland play," said Woodward.
"They are an outstanding team, and it's only a few months ago that they should have beaten Australia in the World Cup.
"They have got a very experienced pack, arguably one of the world's best players in the centre (Brian O'Driscoll), and half-backs who know what they are doing. They're going to be very dangerous, we've got no doubt about that.
"But we are really looking forward to it. We haven't been to Twickenham in terms of a really competitive game for a year, so to go back there having won the World Cup, makes it a big day.
"We are looking forward to this game, probably more so than any game since the World Cup final.
"Twickenham is a place that we don't expect to get beaten. We've been playing okay, although we haven't been making all the right headlines in the way we've been playing.
"We have not been quite at our best, and we hope that we can step up another gear at the weekend, which I think we will need to do to beat Ireland. They are a very good side."
England continued preparations at their Surrey base yesterday, with five new additions to the match-day 22 following last month's victory over Scot-land - lock Steve Borthwick, flanker Joe Worsley, plus substitutes Matt Stevens, Neil Back and James Simpson-Daniel.
Veteran prop Jason Leonard also lent his support during training, despite losing a place on the bench that has increased speculation that he could call time on a remarkable 114-cap international career after this season's Six Nations.