Mike Tindall: The heart of England - rebuilt, ready and refreshed

It is time for the World Cup winners to start winning again, and their midfield powerhouse is back to help them. Nick Townsend meets him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

But the 26-year-old rugby World Cup final hero, who is "squiring" - ah, that deliciously ambiguous word beloved by the celebrity mags - the Queen's grand-daughter, understands the celebrity game. He knows that, at some stage in any interview now, when enquiries regarding his horrendous litany of injuries and his absence from England and the British and Irish Lions have been exhausted, his love life will be touched upon.

For the public, the pairing provides a welcome alternative romantic liaison between sport and royalty (except this time it's the real thing) to Posh and Becks, and without their avarice for self-publicity. "We try to stay out of it [the public eye] as much as we can, but it's quite hard sometimes," confesses the Yorkshireman. "You get a bit of banter from the players, but to be honest not too many read those magazines."

The equine allusion above refers, of course, to Phillips' inheritance of her mother's love of horses, and more specifically to her selection to compete for Britain in the European Eventing Championships which start on Thursday at Blenheim. Tindall will be there on the Sunday, providing encouragement, but nothing more. Definitely not motivational guidance, despite his own achievements at the highest level. "Like I know what it's like to go over a f***ing eight-foot jump," he says with a self-deprecating laugh. "No, we both support each other. But Zara knows how to get herself ready to compete in her sport; I'm the same in mine. You have to respect her and let her get on with it."

What Tindall does understand are the inherent perils of eventing. "You get a lot of minor injuries in rugby, and sometimes big collisions. But you make a mistake and something goes wrong at eventing, and the reality is, if a horse falls on you, it's potentially fatal." He adds swiftly: "No, it doesn't worry me. Zara's so skilful. I'm fully confident in her ability. She knows exactly what to do."

The rugby union fanatics among Phillips' extended family would, no doubt, express similar sentiments about a commoner whose 41 England caps since his try-scoring debut against Ireland in 2000 - with the climax that 2003 World Cup triumph - have confirmed him as a powerful and resourceful midfield presence.

Which makes the injuries which have punctuated his career since that emotional evening in Sydney all the more frustrating, for his country as much as himself. By this time last year, he had recovered from a ruptured ankle and torn abdominal muscles and been appointed England vice-captain, only to miss the Six Nations with a stress fracture of the right foot which required surgery. He has also undergone procedures to "reconstruct" his shoulder, treatment that he describes, insouciantly, as "a big word for having a few things reattached and a bit of bone cut away".

After eight months' absence, he will finally put hand to ball again competitively this afternoon when his new club visit Worcester for the start of their Guinness Premiership campaign. Tindall moved to Kingsholm after eight years at Bath, reportedly following a contract disagreement with his former club's chairman, Andrew Brownsword. "Things just became stalemated at Bath. But I had the feeling that it was the right time to move on anyway, just as people like Balsh [Iain Balshaw] and Catty [Mike Catt] did," he explains. "Catty couldn't get fit for Bath, but he's gone away and played virtually every game for London Irish. He seems refreshed and rejuvenated. I sort of looked at it along those lines. With the next World Cup in two years' time, I thought it was a good time to start over and start earning my stripes again at a different club."

He adds: "There was the opportunity to play with people like James Simpson-Daniel and HP [Henry Paul], the young winger Mark Foster, Jake Boer and Phil Vickery, all great players. Also, there's the atmosphere at Kingsholm. You don't get it at any other ground in the Premiership; not even in Ireland, the Super 12s, or South Africa, where it's really hostile."

Once he has reasserted himself at club level, the retrieval of that England No 12 shirt will be his next priority. And, who knows, the captaincy at some stage, though he protests: "Obviously, being captain of your country is an amazing thing, but I would never go out there and say, 'I want it'. It wouldn't change the way I play, anyway. You get picked as captain because of what you do on the field and how you lead by example, like Jonny [Wilkinson] and Johno [Martin Johnson] have. It's difficult to explain if you haven't been in a dressing room with these people, how immense they are to a team. I don't like the word awe, but that's the only way to describe it."

Retirements, like that of the talismanic Johnson, and injuries to those like Tindall have contributed in large measure to England's failure to maintain the form of champions. Certainly there has been a lack of stable partnerships in his own midfield domain. "It's been chop and change. We've seen Mathew Tait, Nooney [Jamie Noone], Olly [Barkley], Ollie Smith. There hasn't been any consistency, of people being available. Then we got Charlie [Hodgson] injured at 10, and Jonny, of course. That's the way it's gone. Hopefully, everyone apart from those on Lions duty will have had a good break."

There is a sense that the return of himself, Wilkinson, Vickery, and Lawrence Dallaglio (who is pondering an international comeback), plus the addition of the league convert and former Great Britain captain Andy Farrell, could provide a psychological stimulus and enhance expectations for the autumn Tests at Twickenham against Australia, New Zealand and Samoa, followed by the Six Nations.

"England expectations are always high, and should be so," says Tindall. "You set yourself a bar, and always try to surpass that. But it all depends on what the season produces. There may be all of us boys coming back, or arriving, and saying, 'I want to play', but there may be people playing better. We've all got to prove ourselves to the England management.

"It's going to be tough, but do I think that we can win them all? Yes," he responds when asked about England's potential for victory this autumn. "Of course, I'd say that. I'm f***ing English, aren't I? We've got enough good players, as long as they all hit form at the start of the season. Australia [whom England meet first, on 12 November] are definitely struggling a little bit. They have the same problem as us. Look at how many injuries they're getting. But New Zealand are on fire. They're just a ruthless team that can kill off the opposition quite easily."

You suggest that winning can become contagious, even between sports. Can England's rugby fraternity be spurred on by their cricketing counterparts' feats? "Definitely," he says. "We can look at what the cricket boys have done, just look at the ways they're playing for each other, and the way [Michael] Vaughan's captaining. He's making all the right calls at the right time. They've got an awesome team spirit about them and they're executing exactly what they have planned to do. Any team can look at something like that, and feed off it."

Which sounds remarkably similar to what we were saying about Sir Clive Woodward and Co after Sydney, even if the coach's stock has declined somewhat following his stewardship of this year's Lions' tour. "I couldn't understand why he took that many players and played some a lot, like Josh [Lewsey], sometimes three games a week, and others not much," says Tindall. "If you take that many players, you've got to at least use them. Give everyone a chance."

He adds: "It's a shame, because he is good at what he does. There's no doubt. Ask any other player what he did for English rugby and they'll tell you it was massive." Tindall pauses, and smiles. "Whether he can do it with football is another question... but Clive's made a living out of shocking people in what he does."

The hiatus in Tindall's own career has allowed him to indulge a passion for poker. He won ITV's All-Star Poker Challenge, and donated the £25,000 prize to the Parkinson's Disease Society. His father, Phil, suffers from the condition. "You can try and read people, but ultimately it's aggression that speaks in poker," says Tindall. "Hopefully, I've got used to that in rugby."

In sport, as in poker, as in his private life, Tindall could be said to have a full hand at the moment. Just don't mention a Royal Flush...


Mike Tindall MBE

Born: 18 October 1978 in Wakefield.

Height: 6ft 2in. Weight: 16st 8lb.

Club career: Joined Gloucester February 2005. Previously with Bath (85 Premiership appearances).

International career: 41 Tests for England. Member of the 2003 World Cup-winning side. First picked in the England Six Nations squad in 2000. Missed the 2005 season with foot injury.

Private life: His partner is Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne.

Also: Legend has it that on the way back from the 2003 World Cup Tindall broke cricketer David Boon's in-flight record - 52 - for the number of "tinnies" consumed. Father Phil captained Otley.