London - All Blacks great Sean Fitzpatrick has said on Monday that England would continue to struggle against the elite southern hemisphere nations until their top players are centrally contracted.
England's prospects of World Cup glory on home soil next year have suffered setbacks this month after a 24-21 loss to world champions New Zealand was followed by last weekend's 31-28 defeat by South Africa, second behind the All Blacks in the International Rugby Board's world rankings.
Saturday's loss meant England have won just once in their last 23 matches against New Zealand and South Africa, who both use central contracts in a bid to manage players' workloads for both club and country, with the All Blacks going one step further by refusing to select anyone based at an overseas club for Test duty.
Although the 'club v country' rows were once common place in English rugby in the early years of the professional game, they have largely died down following a series of agreements between the governing Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby, the umbrella body for the country's top-flight teams, over such vexed issues as player release.
But former New Zealand captain Fitzpatrick said the inherent tension was a problem for countries such as England and France, who both have strong and independent league structures.
"It makes it very difficult for the northern hemisphere sides and even more so in the autumn," said Fitzpatrick, speaking at the IRB World Rugby Conference and Exhibition in London on Monday.
"The All Blacks play 12 to 15 Test matches a year which means they're together 20-odd weeks a year which makes them almost like a club team," added Fitzpatrick, the hooker in the New Zealand side that won the inaugural World Cup on home soil back in 1987.
"That's where the northern hemisphere teams are going to struggle against the southern hemisphere."
Fitzpatrick also suggested it would be a "good idea" for the RFU to buy every one of the 12 Premiership clubs if it meant central contracts could be introduced.
England have now lost their last five Tests -- the team's worst run since 2006 -- but Fitzpatrick insisted they had made progress since a lacklustre showing at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
"I think they should be a bit harder on themselves in terms of what they're saying publicly," he said.
"But in the context of where they were three years ago I think they've made huge strides...three years ago nobody expected them to win certain games."
Fitzpatrick said the most concerning thing about Saturday's latest defeat was the style of rugby played by coach Stuart Lancaster's side, with England's backs failing to capitalise on the possession generated by their forwards.
"I would be concerned in terms of the style of rugby England are playing," he said.
"But the five games they have lost are against the two best teams in the world -- they need to take that into consideration in terms of what they're doing."