Shortly before I arrive at Danny Care's house in a rather nondescript suburb of south-west London, I get a message telling me that Bill McLaren has died. I pass this sad news on to Care, who dutifully expresses shock, but then admits that, while he knows the name, he's not certain who Bill McLaren was. "I'm sure if I heard him speaking I'd be, 'OK yeah'," he says.
I don't offer this anecdote as criticism of Care; the Harlequins and England scrum-half is a bright, affable, companionable young man. But when a leading rugby union player can't quite identify the man who for 50-odd years was the game's supreme commentator, it underlines how rugby has moved into a new era. And here's the really unsettling thing; the new era might be moving too quickly even for Care, who has only just turned 23, yet is all too aware of what he describes as a rising "new breed" of scrum-half, exemplified by 20-year-old Ben Youngs of Leicester Tigers. Care claims that next year's World Cup is not really on his radar yet, but on the Youngs radar, and that of other whippersnappers such as Newcastle's Micky Young, and Gloucester's Dave Lewis, and Joe Simpson at Wasps, I'll bet there's a loud insistent bleep.
Still, Care is cheerful enough about the Youngs, Young and young pretenders to the England No 9 shirt. After all, none of them is in the senior squad for the Six Nations opener against Wales at Twickenham a fortnight tomorrow. A more immediate threat to his ambition is Paul Hodgson of London Irish, who ended the autumn internationals in possession of the jersey that, for the first Test against Australia, had been Care's. Which of them will get Martin Johnson's beetle-browed nod for the Wales game, or whether it will be Harry Ellis, fit again after knee ligament surgery, is anybody's guess. But Care is happy to have healthy competition. He doesn't even mind bigging up his rival scrum-halves.
"Paul Hodgson is a great organiser, a great communicator, who's playing so well at Irish. Harry Ellis hasn't played for a while, but he's very aggressive, very good in defence. Put the three of us together and you'd have the perfect player." So what is the case for his own inclusion? He smiles. "I think I pose an attacking threat. I like to run with the ball, score tries, create tries. If they want to play an attacking game I should be up there as a contender to start." And whether he plays or not, what can we expect from England, following the disappointment of the autumn?
"It's hard to know exactly, but I'm sure it will be a more exciting brand of rugby. The Wales game is massive for both teams because their autumn wasn't the best, either. But we're at home and we expect to win. Everyone complained about the way we played in the autumn but they were three of the best teams in the world and sometimes you can't play the way you want to play. Now, we all just want to get back out there."
In the meantime, there is Sunday's Heineken Cup match against Cardiff Blues to divert him, not that Quins can proceed beyond it, having failed to record a single win in a competition in which last season they went out, despite a notorious bite on a blood capsule, at the quarter-final stage.
To his credit, Care does not sigh or roll his eyes when I bring up the "Bloodgate" scandal. But then nor should he, because even if the episode itself warrants no further scrutiny, its effects have lingered in the Quins dressing room like a bad smell. "It would be very foolish to say it hasn't affected us this season," he admits. "It was one of the biggest stories ever in rugby, and we were all sucked into it. It's not very nice going to other grounds and getting called cheats, but that still happens, which in a way spurs you on."
He insists that the Quins season can still be rescued. "We're out of the Heineken Cup and top four [in the Guinness Premiership] would be a big push, but we can get a top-six spot. And the LV Cup is a kind of back door into Europe, so we'll try our best in that as well."
Just to switch sports, it all sounds a little reminiscent of the way things have been going for his favourite football team, Liverpool. Is he a "sack Rafa" or "back Rafa" man? "Oh, I'm definitely 'sack Rafa'. He's had a lot of money to play with and, apart from Torres, what's he done with it? I'd like Mourinho [as manager]."
Football was Care's first love, indeed he was on Sheffield Wednesday's books as a centre-forward, until a new academy manager arrived and told him he was too small. His "but what about Michael Owen?" protestations fell on deaf ears and, disillusioned, he turned back to rugby, which he had played since the age of six but given up to concentrate on football. So he joined Otley, and then went to Leeds, where he understudied the All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall. Then Dean Richards came calling for Harlequins, telling him that he would be England's next No 9, and it didn't matter any more that he had once yearned to hear exactly that prediction from a football man.
I ask whether his football skills have helped him on the rugby field. "Yeah, I think so," he says. "Football has helped me to read the game, to anticipate what other players are going to do next. And if I look at games I played a year ago, I can see how I've progressed as a player. When I first got to Quins I kept banging on Deano's door asking to play, but he was right to hold me back, and I got to learn off Andy Gomarsall and Steve So'oialo, two great scrum-halves." Another mentor is Matt Dawson. "He's part of the agency that looks after me and I talk to him regularly."
It shows. Like Dawson, Care plays with a cockiness that doesn't always endear him to opponents, or referees. "I play best when I'm feeling a bit cocky," he says. "I like to live on the edge as a scrum-half, maybe bend the rules a little bit, work the referee, make it look like something's happening when it's not, like someone else is slowing the ball down when really you're slowing it. I haven't mastered it [the dark art of influencing the referee], I'm far from mastering it, but I know it's not about backchat. I got sent off at school for backchat and my dad had a real go at me. It's more about little words here and there, like Martin Johnson did when he was playing, and the next three penalties would go England's way."
Speaking of Johnson, Care incurred the purple wrath of the great man – never a pretty sight – in last season's Six Nations match against Ireland, when shortly after coming off the bench, and with the game in the balance, he was sin-binned for a rash shoulder-charge. Looking up at the big screen as he trudged off the field at Croke Park, he saw a furious Johnson smash a giant fist into a giant thigh. "And the whole time, funnily enough, I was thinking, 'My mum's going to kill me'. She'd said to me just before the game, 'Make sure you don't get sin-binned'. I didn't really get a bollocking from Johnno. He was quite good about it. But my mum wasn't..."
Mrs Care was similarly horrified to hear that her son was one of the so-called "Auckland Four", the four players mixed up in an unsavoury episode during England's tour of New Zealand 18 months ago, when a woman alleged sexual assault. Care was subsequently exonerated. But like "Bloodgate" – and it is this likeable Yorkshireman's misfortune to be a common denominator between English rugby's two biggest imbroglios of recent years – the affair has left its mark.
"It was a massive shock," he says, "and it opened my eyes to the risks of what can happen in sport at a high-profile level. I'm not a high-profile player, but once you're in the England team there are going to be people out to get you. When me and Dave Strettle were pulled in, and told we were involved, we were, like, 'no way'. I'd only just been told I was starting in my first Test, and then this, bloody hell. My mum rang and said 'what's happening?' and I told her it was nothing to do with me, but then I had to ring her and tell her that it was. It meant I couldn't really enjoy playing against New Zealand for the first time. And even though I was completely cleared, it's still horrible to have it against my name. It will always get dragged up."
Apologising for dragging it up, I venture to Care that if he were an England footballer, I would be told on pain of torture that it was not to be mentioned, not that I would have got to sit down with him in his front room in the first place. Nevertheless, the media are treated with increasing wariness even in rugby. "Yeah, and if there's something I know I shouldn't talk about I try not to, but generally I don't hold back. There's still a massive difference between rugby and football, although I wish they were closer money-wise, so I could have a Ferrari..."
Instead he has a Range Rover, which at 23 isn't something to complain about. "Yeah, but I'd quite like to pay off a Ferrari in a week."
He should worry. He is sponsored by the fashion label Eden Park, from whom he gets lovely clothes, and he and his lovely girlfriend are about to move to a new house, in a swankier neighbourhood. Life is sweet, and almost best of all, he is getting better and better at "Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2", the online game on which he and many of his fellow rugby players are completely, unapologetically, hooked.
"Last night I went on online about half 11, and about 10 of the lads were on. I know it sounds sad, but you get to speak to your mates while you're shooting them, basically. All the lads love it. On a day off, if you start playing early doors, you could easily pass six or seven hours..." I must raise an eyebrow, because he adds: "It's not beneficial at all, I know that. But it's a good time-killer."
The late Bill McLaren wouldn't have understood it at all.
Danny Care wears a commemorative Six Nations rugby shirt by Eden Park, the fashion brand founded by Franck Mesnel. Shop and find your local store at www.eden-park.com or call 020 7734 0365
Care's rivals: England's rising scrum-half stars
Ben Youngs (Leicester)
Born 5 September 1989
After graduating from the Tigers Academy, Youngs earned a nomination for the Guinness Premiership Young Player of the Year in 2009 and a call-up to the England Under-20 squad that would reach the final at the 2009 World Cup. Has made 20 Leicester appearances this season.
Mickey Young (Newcastle)
Born 31 December 1988
Made his Falcons debut in 2008 and drew attention after some fine IRB Sevens form, as Young's impressive displays earned him a call-up to the England Saxons squad for the 2009 Churchill Cup in the US.
Dave Lewis (Gloucester)
Born 20 April 1989
Lewis's dazzling form while playing for Exeter Chiefs caught the attention of Gloucester scouts, who bought him to Kingsholm in 2007. Along with Youngs, Lewis was selected in the England Under-20 World Cup squad. Has made 14 Gloucester appearances this season.
Joe Simpson (Wasps)
Born 5 July 1988
After he joined from Australia's New South Wales Waratahs' academy in July 2008, some promising early form had Simpson pegged as one for the future. He impressed with his displays in the 2009 Churchill Cup, scoring a fine try against Argentina in a 28-20 win and earning the man of the match award.
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