There are many sides to Andrew Sheridan, precious few of which fit the traditional mould of the loose-head prop. For a start, he plays the guitar – no mean achievement given the size of his fingers – and writes gentle love songs that he sings himself, recording them in a studio up Manchester way and selling them to discerning listeners via the internet. To the best of anyone's knowledge, his celebrated predecessor Gareth Chilcott never did anything like this.
Sheridan is also prone to missing major international matches with minor injuries, a high proportion of them caused by low-flying insects (he was hospitalised twice in 2007 after being bitten by something nasty while training, and fears were expressed about the reliability of his immune system). Chilcott was not known for this either. No insect blessed with the most primitive understanding of self-preservation ever went near the mighty "Cooch", let alone bit him.
But for some jaw-dropping performances on the big occasion – the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in 2007 was an example, as was the third Test between the Lions and the Springboks in Johannesburg some 20 months later – Sheridan might now be categorised as a sporting yeti: often talked about, never seen. But Martin Johnson, the England manager, has seen enough to convince himself of the Sale forward's capacity to deal with the French scrum at Twickenham tomorrow, and as the French scrummage on an industrial scale, the rest of the red-rose team are praying he is right.
In the final game of last season's Six Nations, against Les Bleus in Paris, the England set-piece was torn into strips like some cheap brand of toilet paper, and as a direct result, France won both the game and the Grand Slam – their third of the decade. Being a dyed-in-the-wool tight forward who won virtually all the game's glittering prizes on the back of close-quarters domination, Johnson is in no hurry to revisit that humiliation.
"We have to be pretty strong on the loose-head side of the scrum," he said yesterday. "That Nicolas Mas ... he likes to come into the gap and make it hard for opposition hookers. We need to stop him doing that, and we need to stop him all game. It's about having the 'every time' mentality. It's down to us to be absolutely right at the first scrum and take it away from them."
Mas is the cornerstone of the French pack. Born in Perpignan, where youngsters drink in scrummaging technique with their mothers' milk, he is considered by many good judges to be the most destructive tight-head specialist in the sport.
As wide as he is tall, he goes about his work with the blank expression of a hired hitman who has long since stopped worrying about the more brutal aspects of his chosen profession. If Sheridan, who missed the 2010 match with an injury that had nothing to do with insects or any other form of wildlife, fails to engage him the way Tim Payne of Wasps failed that night, England will lose again.
"The French don't mess about when it comes to scrummaging," Sheridan acknowledged yesterday. "They take huge pride in that part of their game. It's a big element in their psychology: they love to feel they're on top of you, that they're in control. If they do feel that way, they like to hold the ball in the scrum and go for the double shove. They have very capable front-rowers: I've faced Mas maybe three times, and he works extremely well with William Servat, the hooker, in disrupting the opposition set-piece.
"They have two workhorses in the second row who are just as important to the collective effort, and they have back-rowers who stay down and push. They're a serious proposition. When you talk about testing yourself against the best, you put the French right up there."
Until recently, it had been widely assumed that Sheridan would take up an offer to play club rugby in France following this autumn's World Cup in New Zealand. That little theory hit the buffers when he signed a 12-month contract extension with Sale, a clear sign that whatever happens at the forthcoming global gathering, he fancies himself as a Test contender for another season at least. This is reassuring news for Johnson, who has found it horribly difficult to fill the No 1 position in Sheridan's absence.
Was he as close to agreeing terms across the water as most people seemed to think? "I never had a firm offer from Toulon, so to that extent it was paper talk," he replied. "But it's true to say I was considering moving to France, and I'll probably consider it again at some point because, let's be honest here, the financial packages are good. Also, there's the attraction of experiencing a different culture. I speak a little French, and I'd like to be fluent. Also, I enjoy a drop of wine."
For now, though, he enjoys his rugby in England, and England rugby in particular, just a little more. "There's life in the old dog yet, so I think I'll keep plugging away for a bit longer," he said. "There are a lot of good young players coming into the group, including at loose-head, and they're not afraid to go for it. I'm a quiet sort by nature and when I came into the international squad, it took me a while to get myself settled. The people appearing now are different somehow. They don't hold back and they've made the England squad a stimulating place to be."
The question for Sheridan is orthopaedic as much as anything: how long can his body absorb the shocks associated with the car-crash environment of the scrum? Last season, his shoulder gave way and took a year to mend. Two days before the Italy game earlier this month, he ricked his back during a gym session. "The weight I was lifting was pretty light," said the man renowned as the most formidable bench-press operator in the sport. Was he embarrassed? "I was ... disappointed," he admitted after due reflection.
"Scrummaging doesn't get any easier. Even though they've changed the engagement rules and taken away the long-range hit, that first contact is still heavy. The referees hold you for so long now, the whole thing is like a catapult waiting to be fired." It sounded gruesome, but Sheridan smiled softly and added: "I've never said it isn't hard work, but there are worse ways of spending an afternoon." With Nicolas Mas on the immediate horizon, it is difficult for the layman to think of one. But that's the scrummaging fraternity for you. They play by different rules to everyone else.
Born 1 November, 1979, Bromley
School Dulwich College (along with Nick Easter and David Flatman)
Position Loose-head prop
1998-99 Richmond FC
2003- Sale Sharks
2004-present 37 England caps
Debut v Canada, Twickenham, November 2004
14 Six Nations appearances
British & Irish Lions 2005 and 2009
Joined Bristol as a lock, but due to his lack of height and weight he was soon changed to loose-head prop, though could also play at number eight.Reuse content