Delon Armitage: Full-back gets his mojo back

After a breathtaking start to his England career, he lost form and fitness. Now the fun has returned and he'll battle Ben Foden for the No 15 jersey in the Six Nations and World Cup. He talks to Hugh Godwin
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The Independent Online

It may be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but what about rekindling an old flame? Delon Armitage has rediscovered his enjoyment of rugby after a lean time brought on by injury. The next task for the London Irish full-back is to reclaim the England jersey from Ben Foden. "It's good for the country to have two guys battling it out," says Armitage. "I'm not happy being in the 22, I want to be in the 15. And we all know where we want to be in nine months' time: starting in that World Cup."

Contenders including Danny Cipriani, Nick Abendanon and Olly Morgan have had their chances. With eight Tests to go before the World Cup, there will be no more experimentation. The England squad to be named by the manager Martin Johnson next Wednesday will surely be the one – give or take the odd crock – that travels to New Zealand in September. And at full-back within the squad it is Foden v Armitage. Though Mike Catt, the London Irish attack coach, may be biased, he is sure which way it ought to go. "Delon is the country's best full-back," said Catt, who won 16 of his 75 England caps in that position. "He's one of the best in the business. It is nice for England that both he and Foden are playing well, and Delon knows he's got to wait his chance. But he has more to his all-round game. You could argue Foden should play at 13 for England. The only time Foden gets the ball in his hands is when it's kicked to him. If he's only getting the ball four or five times a game, and is making good yardage out of it, then put him in a position when he could do even more."

This time last year the issue was troublesome for a different reason. The man they call "D-Lo" was below par, recovering from a dislocated shoulder. In five matches for Irish after 13 weeks out, the brio of Armitage's previous, breakthrough season for England was absent.

It was an intriguing test for Johnson. Dabbling with Mark Cueto and – quite bafflingly – Ugo Monye had failed. Foden of Northampton was champing at the bit. Johnson wantedArmitage to resume and picked him for the first four matches of the Six Nations Championship. But Armitage was in decline. Shakespeare was able to philosophise about it; Armitage felt the pain of losing what he had from his head to his boot-studs. "After first getting picked for England [in Johnson's first Tests as manager in autumn 2008], I was enjoying rugby and enjoying life; people knowing who you are, stuff like that. In my head, after the injury, I thought I'd slot straight back in. But game by game it just didn't feel right. I was trying things and getting frustrated and my game just went."

Whether through loyalty or testing Foden's resolve or some other reason, Johnson postponed the inevitable – not the first to do so: remember Brian Ashton as England coach persevering with Jonny Wilkinson in the 2008 Six Nations when Danny Cipriani was the form choice? Foden was eventually picked for the fifth and last of the Six Nations matches, away to the Grand Slammers-elect, France: he scored in Paris and kept his place on the summer tour down to Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, Armitage wondered glumly whether there was any point in going on that tour. In fact, it gave him the boost he needed. Though confined to the midweek team and only 15 minutes of Test duty, as a replacement centre, the fun returned. On into pre-season he stopped "feeling so sorry for myself" and began doing the "little things" again: those 15 minutes after training of catching balls, kicking and one-on-ones teasing [Irish team-mates] Sailosi [Tagicakibau] and Topsy [Ojo] in five-metre channels. Even the Playstation rugby game was fished out of its box. But Foden was in charge, playing every minute of England's four autumn Tests, while Armitage had a combined 36 minutes in the first three matches, as a replacement for two wings and a centre. For the fourth match against South Africa, he was sent back to his club and Matt Banahan took the outside back's spot on the England bench. "Watching someone playing well in your position is tough," says Armitage. "My focus now is being ready for that Wales game [on 5 February]. Everything I do from now on – gym in the week, playing at the weekend – is building to the World Cup." There is an appealing realism to him: no artifice or mask. He is not shy about discussing a dark temper that has revealed itself in silly swipes at opponents. "I picked it up in France [where he played in his teens, as the second of five rugby-playing brothers]. I care about the game and sometimes I say to myself I care too much and I need to work on it. I've never played angry for England. But with the club there's a frustration that you go through a game plan and you come to a match and it doesn't happen. Maybe players are not as good, not as clinical, as international players. I've definitely controlled it. I used to be catching yellow cards pretty much every game."

Mils Muliaina, that bustling hustler of an All Black full-back, is – according to Catt and many others – the world's best. Wales's Lee Byrne and Kurtley Beale of Australia have their claims. When Armitage is right, he has it all. Quick thrusts and clever running lines; a clumping boot and good positioning; security under the high ball combined with the vision to counter-attack from the catch. He can drop a goal or kick from long range, too. It is good to hear the word "instinct" tripping again off the tongue of the 27-year-old who was born in Trinidad.

"You know when you're forcing it," Armitage says. "You start questioning, 'why did I kick there?' Now the first decision in my head is 'do it'. Not 'is that what the England backs coach wants you to do?' or 'is that what Catty wants you to do'?" He says "everyone can see England are trying to have a go out wide" and he has been studying footage of how Shontayne Hape, who is likely to be persisted with as an England centre, plays.

So Armitage has his mojo back, Ojo is the Premiership's top try scorer – and if London Irish were not on a run of nine straight defeats everything would be ginger peachy. It could become a desperate dozen unless their luck turns in today's trip to Saracens or against Ospreys at home and Munster away in the Heineken Cup in the next fortnight. Despite his light autumn workload, Armitage is resting today under the elite player agreement. "I would like to be playing," he said. "But I wasn't going to ring the England management and argue about it. Not in a World Cup year."

England's most-capped No 15s

1. Matt Perry: 35 games, 50 points

2. Jon Webb: 33 games, 296 points

3. Jason Robinson: 27 games, 65pts

4. Josh Lewsey: 27 games, 60pts

5. Dusty Hare: 25 games, 240pts

6. Iain Balshaw: 25 games, 45pts

7. Bob Hiller: 19 games, 138pts

8. Mike Catt: 16 games, 10pts

9. William Johnston: 16 games, 0pts

10. John Willcox: 16 games, 17pts

11. Delon Armitage: 15 games, 34pts

(21. Ben Foden: 9 games, 10pts)