Mike Tindall: Staring role in the battle of who blinks first
England have not beaten the All Blacks for six years but the squire to the Queen's granddaughter is ready to fight for his country. Hugh Godwin meets Mike Tindall
Sunday 31 October 2010
Mike Tindall once took part in a staring competition for a sponsor's internet viral. He stared into a camera, and stared, and stared, for six minutes without blinking. Six minutes. If the camera had possessed eyes, they would have begun watering.
But the man who has had occasion to bow to the monarch of the realm over breakfast knows when to switch it on and switch it off. As Tindall takes the air outside the England team's hotel in Surrey, he is comparatively relaxed and chatty. The time to switch it on again will be when the All Blacks hove into his steady view at Twickenham next Saturday.
"I was unbeaten against the All Blacks for four years, you know," Tindall says idly, hands stretched above his head for a moment. "Then, since 2004, it's gone the other way." And how. England's past eight meetings with New Zealand have been defeats. Tindall, in between the broken legs and torn hamstrings and even a torn liver which are a rugby player's lot, appeared in five of them.
He returned from the latest injury lay-off – a year's absence, England-wise – for March's moderately encouraging 12-10 loss in France and the subsequent shared series in Australia. "It takes intensity to beat the All Blacks," he says. "They always turn up ready to play, and if you don't turn up with that same will, same passion, they'll be very hard to beat. You think back to 2003 [in Wellington] when we had two men in the sin-bin and won. It takes a mental strength and ferocity. That's got to turn up in every game as a given." And how simple is that, every week in a 40-week season? "Internationally, it's not difficult," says Tindall, whose midfield partnership with Toby Flood and Shontayne Hape is a mere two Tests old. "The crowds, the stadiums, the media, the stakes you're playing at get you going.
"At club level it's a little bit harder because you're playing a lot of games. I talk about this with Carl Hogg [the forwards coach at his club, Gloucester] all the time. About how you find that zone every week. It's a personal thing, it's hard for you to affect someone else and get them into that place."
This is an interesting admission, given Tindall is on the England manager Martin Johnson's shortlist of three or four candidates to be captain if Lewis Moody fails to negotiate today's fitness-testing Premiership match for Bath at Harlequins. After 10 years as an England player, including a starting place in the 2003 World Cup final victory, Tindall is routinely mentioned by Johnson in a bracket with the words "experience" and "leadership". This will not faze the squire to the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips, but does it please him? What does the compliment mean to this blunt Yorkshireman with a nose resembling a relief map of the Pennines?
"I would say it doesn't really affect me or change me," says Tindall. "I am what I am, and I know what I am. I make sure when we train all week, we are prepared to play on the weekend. If that means having discussions with coaches about certain areas, I'll have that.
"I was lucky to be in that generation with England from 2000 to 2002 when they were confident to let you speak. I'm sure that helped me develop what I think is my game understanding. Mix that with the experience of being round the block a fair bit, and I feel I can contribute to areas we can work on. The senior players [Jonny Wilkinson, Tindall, Nick Easter, Steve Thompson, Flood] will have a coffee and sit down as a group of mates really. It doesn't happen often that we disagree but when we do, we sort it out. You can pick something up through training that players are talking about and take it to the coaches and see what they think."
What the rest of the world thinks, to generalise horribly but not too inaccurately, is that England are a work in progress. The win last time out in Sydney featured Hape's skills at getting the ball through the tackle and away to Tindall in the outside-centre role that the 32-year-old defines as "fundamentally the same as in my early days – back then I was playing with Will Greenwood, a playmaker at 12, and I was the power-runner type.
"People have played around with putting wingers at 13, which is not too bad in attack but makes it harder in defence. We've got 'Shapes' now, a good playmaker inside, and I'll do whatever needs to be done outside".
Looking back on past interviews, I recall Tindall circa 2002 describing the security blanket with England (as opposed to his then club, Bath) that he knew everyone around him would make something happen. Can he say the same of the current England team, with tyros all around, including Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden in the backs?
"I was lucky to play probably 30 Tests with Will [Greenwood]," Tindall says. "We knew each other very well and you hope you can recreate that sort of bond with new guys. We have players who do make things happen. In the majority of the games, Mark Cueto makes line breaks, Foden makes line breaks, Ashton does. We're still a little way off where we want to be and if we can improve as the next year goes by, hopefully we'll be looking good.
"There's been times when I don't think the environment around the squad has quite been of the right quality, whereas for the last 18 months it's been a really good place to be. People are putting their heart, body and soul into it and that makes a massive difference. Not just the ones in the 22, you're getting it from every part of the squad."
And though the gaze is still cool, Tindall is warming to a theme. "You might say time is ticking – and it is – but we've got a massive opportunity this autumn to really go out and attack these teams. People talk a lot about them. We want to go out and attack them and show that we are just as good if not better than them. We don't in any way underestimate what New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Samoa are. We know exactly what they are and how good they can be. The challenge for us is to attack them and make it difficult for them. And I believe we can do that. But it takes hard work and we're doing that, and hopefully come kick-off time we'll go after them."
His nickname, "The Fridge", refers to his size and strength, not his sang froid, though he cut back the weights and shed seven kilos in pre-season. Yes, he fits the England management's faith in a good big 'un over a good little 'un in the midfield, though don't forget the former head coach Brian Ashton also rated Tindall, calling him "an outstanding player and an outstanding individual, whose positive attitude to life and those around him is inspirational".
We wait to see whether Johnson and his cohorts of Brian Smith, John Wells and Mike Ford can out-plot the world's top three teams (England are currently ranked sixth). Ford has been running defensive sessions at quicker than game speed – "You don't really get any 'what ifs' if you're just running nice, pretty patterns," says Tindall – and offered a new ploy which the players took a vote on.
This is the right approach, according to Tindall, and he is also happy that Johnson has become a more prominent figure. "Definitely, at the start, we didn't get enough Johnno. By that I mean what people know Johnno for. Him staring at you. The fact he'll never look away, he's unmoveable. With some of the players at the start, he was feeling his way. The players wanted to see more of him because he's iconic for English rugby in what he's done. People want to feed off that, especially players who grew up watching what he was, they want to see him and find out what makes him tick."
Tindall says his and Zara's devotion to their respective sports – in Zara's bid to make Britain's 2012 Olympic eventing team she has "two or three horses" she is hoping go well next year – and not living in London have helped them avoid the downside of the tabloids' celebrity obsession. "I know for her, the horses come first before everything, well maybe after me. Well, I hope so anyway. My rugby is my main priority, if I can fit things around it, I'll do them."
He attended the Bath prop David Barnes's testimonial dinner in London last Wednesday, when Moody told the audience that his ploy during the New Zealand haka was to pick an opponent and see who blinked first. The colleague sitting nearby would never have scoffed but you did wonder. Blink? Mike Tindall? Never.
Southern discomfort: England's past 10 results against the big three
England v Australia
Played 10, Won 3, Lost 7
Won 21-20, Sydney, June 2010
Lost 27-17, Perth, June 2010
Lost 18-9, Twickenham, November 2009
Lost 28-14, Twickenham, November 2008
Won 12-10, Marseilles, World Cup, October 2007
Lost 43-18, Melbourne, June 2006
Lost 34-3, Sydney, June 2006
Won 26-16, Twickenham, November 2005
Lost 21-19, Twickenham, November 2004
Lost 51-15, Brisbane, June 2004
England v New Zealand
Played 10, Won 2, Lost 8
Lost 19-6, Twickenham, November 2009
Lost 32-6, Twickenham, November 2008
Lost 44-12, Christchurch, June 2008
Lost 37-20, Auckland, June 2008
Lost 41-20, Twickenham, November 2006
Lost 23-19, Twickenham, November 2005
Lost 36-12, Auckland, June 2004
Lost 36-3, Dunedin, June 2004
Won 15-13, Wellington, June 2003
Won 31-28, Twickenham, November 2002
England v South Africa
Played 10, Won 4, Lost 6
Lost 42-6, Twickenham, November 2008
Lost 15-6, World Cup, Paris, October 2007
Lost 36-0, World Cup, Paris, September 2007
Lost 55-22, Pretoria, June 2007
Lost 58-10, Bloemfontein, May 2007
Lost 25-14, Twickenham, November 2006
Won 23-21, Twickenham, November 2006
Won 32-16, Twickenham, November 2004
Won 25-6, World Cup, Perth, October 2003
Won 53-3, Twickenham, November 2002
Saturday 6 November
England v New Zealand, 2.30
Ireland v South Africa, 5.30
Wales v Australia, 2.30
Saturday 13 November
England v Australia, 2.30
Ireland v Samoa, 2.30
Scotland v New Zealand, 5.15
Wales v South Africa, 2.30
Friday 19 November
Wales v Fiji, 7.30
Saturday 20 November
England v Samoa, 2.30
Ireland v New Zealand, 5.30
Scotland v South Africa, 2.30
Saturday 27 November
England v South Africa, 2.30
Scotland v Samoa, 2.30
Wales v New Zealand, 5.15
Sunday 28 November
Ireland v Argentina, 2.30
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