Ben Foden: The 'butterfly' who's ready to sting like a bee

After victory in Sydney, full-back seems nailed down for World Cup but first Saints have his full backing. Hugh Godwin speaks to Ben Foden
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The Independent Online

Taking tea with Ben Foden in a swish London hotel – neither of us is staying there, it's just a meeting place he has driven to after morning training in Northampton – is an inapt way to sample the life-force of one of English rugby's marquee players. The full-back's most recent match for his country was a taut and joyful triumph over Australia in Sydney in June. His next match for his club will be a claustrophobically parochial showdown with Leicester to kick off the Premiership in a week's time.

Plumping up a cushion and passing the custard creams, when Foden mentions that a spot of psychological profiling by the national team has identified him as "a butterfly", it just about takes the biscuit. Please, let the season start and the action begin.

For now, it is all speculation and reflection. Foden, though possessing only six caps as something of a slow burner at the age of 25, has performed with such persuasive brio in his second coming as an international this year – he played one Test as a substitute at the start of the 2009 Six Nations – that a World Cup place 12 months from now appears nailed on.

He speaks about the tournament being "11 internationals round the corner" with no thought that he might not make it. His try in the final Six Nations match in France last spring, and those by his clubmate Chris Ashton and Leicester's 20-year-old scrum-half Ben Youngs in the 21-20 defeat of Australia on the summer tour, have boosted England and their followers.

The latter result ended a depressing series of defeats by the Tri- Nations powers since the last World Cup, and bought critical leeway for England's manager, Martin Johnson, and his coaches. Until November, at least, all the talk will be of Sydney. "Everyone clings on to it now because there's no games," says Foden who, after the Test series was shared 1-1, went to Ibiza with his pop-star girlfriend, Una Healy. "Come the autumn people will be wondering if it was a fluke or can we back it up. For me, it was not a fluke. Yes, it could have gone the other way, if [Matt] Giteau had kicked his kick near the end. But we played better rugby than Australia and we've got the strongest squad I've ever been involved with, and people can see it and feel it, that we're a squad that's taking big steps."

One of those steps was the profiling by Gerard Murphy, a UK-based Australian who offers team-building advice. Each coach and player filled in a survey of 25 questions and was given a booklet of the outcomes; these are available to every squad member, leading to what Foden describes as an "open-door" policy.

"England were a little bit lost, there were a lot of new faces and what has been done is to open the door," he says. "There was a barrier between management and players. People had it in their heads that we were playing in one way and management wanted us to play in another way, and it was all getting lost in translation. Now players come up with a gameplan with the coaches and it all clicks. I read through my booklet and was amazed how bang on he got it. It said, 'He's like a butterfly, he'll never settle in one place.' I am free-going, not getting tied down and my attention span is like that."

The players also mark themselves out of 10 against three team principles – but not for all the tea in his china cup will Foden reveal what they are. "A year ago, people were marking themselves as six or seven," he says, "and it was swept under the carpet. Now we're looking for a 10 and you're pretty gutted if you don't get a nine."

This isn't empty braggadocio, as Foden's play is shot through with bullishness and backing himself, while appreciating the crucial aspects of when to run, kick or recycle. He is applauded by the new fans at Wembley and Twickenham and by those of us who remember England full-backs of a generation ago as butter-fingered buffoons.

"One thing I really learned in Australia is that it's so close at the top," he says. "From being the best team in the world to probably fourth or fifth is a tiny gap. It's won or lost on a knife-edge. It's something I really enjoy about international rugby, taking the field knowing that the slightest mistake will cost you. If you want to be a professional athlete you have to enjoy that pressure and the more you take it on your own shoulders, the more you enjoy it."

Northampton will be happy if they get two wins from their opening Premiership matches at home to Leicester and away to Harlequins (the Saints haven't won there since 2004). Foden reflects that the close defeats by Munster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and Saracens, twice, at Franklin's Gardens, including in the semi-final of the Premiership, should not disguise Saints' progress. They also won the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

The speculation centres on whether the loss of two influential second-rows – Juandre Kruger to the Blue Bulls and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe to retirement – will be counterbalanced by the continuing emergence of Courtney Lawes (a first-time Test starter in Sydney) and the likes of Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Steve Myler.

"Between Leicester, Sarries, Bath and ourselves it came down to a game of inches," says Foden, who moved from Sale in 2008. "Leicester have got quality throughout, we know their talent is limitless and they're always top of the Premiership, always in finals. It's become expected and bred into them. That's where Northampton are setting our benchmark. In five or six years we want people to look at the Premiership and say without doubt Northampton will be up there.

"The players we've signed may not be any superstars but I believe they're real squad-strengtheners. We can rest a few players if they've got niggles and rotate the squad more. I'm excited about [flanker] Tom Wood, he's one to look out for, and England have high hopes for him in the future."

And what of the one who didn't get away? The prop Soane Tonga'uiha, who turned turtle after initially agreeing a financially attractive move to Saracens. "When it came out that he was going," Foden says, "there were a few people trapping him in the corner, which you wouldn't do very often to 'Tonga'. He's the heart and soul of the club, a big character, and to lose him would have been massively devastating. He's looking fitter and stronger than ever and knocked out some poor French dude within a minute in a pre-season game."

That's more like it: a whiff of cordite over the tea leaves. For now we must twiddle our thumbs and tap into the internet, where two photos of Foden pop up: one of him in the England jersey, arms raised in exultation in Sydney; the other in a pool in Ibiza with his arms raised to hold up a topless Una. That one, of course, was taken by a paparazzo. "The most frustrating thing is everybody assumes it was set up. Una was in a bit of a state at first, then she rang her mum, who said she looked good in the photos.

"It went everywhere and it's exactly what she needs to sell records and do what she's doing and I think she enjoys the attention. When she's back with me in her slacks and slippers she's just a normal girl. When she goes and puts on her Saturdays face we know what's going to happen."

He says it's "nice" to do things away from rugby, such as attending the world premiere of Avatar. "I do get photographers shouting, 'Will the guy next to the girl from the Saturdays get out the way'," he adds, and it's a good line but not as good as those that Northampton and England supporters expect Foden to be running when the real action of rugby begins.

Ben Foden was speaking at the start of a season of live rugby union on Sky Sports with domestic, European and autumn international matches available on Sky Sports HD channels. Call 08442 410 564 to upgrade. Northampton Saints versus Leicester Tigers is live on Sky Sports HD3 from 2.30pm

Life and times of Big Ben

(Left to right) Ben Foden with pop-star girlfriend Una Healy, on duty for Northampton, receiving the Young Player of the Year award in May 2009 and celebrating victory over Australia with his fellow Saint Chris Ashton in Sydney last June