If extra training has become a way of life for the England scrum-half Danny Care in recent months, it has nothing to do with punishment or penitence - the most obvious explanations that might occur to Care-watchers the length and breadth of the red-rose landscape. The Yorkshireman accepts he is still in payback territory after his brushes with the law either side of last Christmas, but his reason for spending more of his free time on the practice paddock is purely rugby-related.
“I want to be the best half-back in the country,” he said after an England team run ahead of this weekend's meeting with the touring Fijians at Twickenham. “The trouble is, there are three No 9s in the squad and we're after the same shirt. It's incredibly competitive. We get on extremely well with each other, but that doesn't change the fact that we're all after one thing. If I want to be the best, I have to train and play exceptionally well every time I have the opportunity. I know how quickly this can be taken away from me.”
To that end, Care is working closely with Kyran Bracken, one of his predecessors in the national team. Over recent weeks, the former Bristol and Saracens player has spent many a long hour breaking down his charge's game and building it back up as something stronger, more reliable and more flexible. At the same time, he is arming the 25-year-old Harlequin against the worst ravages of selectorial whim and fancy.
Care, Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson are the three men scrapping for a starting place at the top level, and a very strong group they are too. The last time England were blessed with such riches at scrum-half was in the mid-1990s, when Bracken found himself slugging it out with Austin Healey, Andy Gomarsall and, most demandingly, with Matt Dawson - the man who ultimately emerged victorious, with a fistful of Lions Test caps and a World Cup triumph to his name. Some say Bracken, as technically proficient as he was insanely courageous, would have seen off his greatest rival but for chronic injury problems. Others claim Dawson's great gifts - physical resilience, instinctive ruthlessness, a bottomless well of fighting spirit - were always going to win the day. Both arguments have their merits.
Either way, Bracken understands what his pupil is likely to go through as England head towards the home World Cup in 2015 and is perfectly placed to help him deal with it. “With Kyran, it's all about getting the basics right,” said Care. “His style was very different to mine: he wasn't so much of a running scrum-half, but his passing and kicking games were the best around. If I can improve in those areas and become better at controlling the tempo of a match, I'll be a more mature player.”
Maturity is an important word for Care these days. The off-field excesses of last season, all of them to do with the demon drink, saw him jettisoned for the entire Six Nations championship; indeed, he played in the third and final Test against South Africa in Port Elizabeth - brilliantly, as it turned out - only because Youngs was incapacitated.
“I go back a long way with Stuart Lancaster [the England head coach] - we first worked together when I was 14 or 15 - and virtually the first thing Stuart had to do when he took over the national team was throw me out of the squad,” he remarked, guiltily. “He said it was the worst thing he had to do. But he also told me that it didn't mean my England career was at an end. He gave me a lot of encouragement and I'm grateful for it. I'll never put myself in that position again.
“Am I more mature? I think so, both as a player and a person. And more focused, too. I'm still pretty laid-back as a character but I spend much more time analysing what I'm doing. In the old days, I wouldn't even look at the video if I thought I'd played alright. Now, I work on my skills day to day. It's all about rugby as far as I'm concerned.
“Last season, I lost sight of what was important to me and it showed in my game. I let my standards slip. I can't afford to let that happen a second time and I won't. I'm 25 now. I'm getting on a bit.”
CHANGING TIMES AT NO 9* England's old guard...
Tests Points Tries
Kyran Bracken 51 15 3
Andy Gomarsall 35 37 6
Matt Dawson 84 111 18
* ... and the current crop
Danny Care 33 23 4
Lee Dickson 7 0 0
Ben Youngs 24 30 6 – The Independent