Toby Flood: Model pro who loves fly-fishing, peonies... and Shearer
The Brian Viner Interview: Fly-half has varied interests but his main aim is to lead England to the World Cup last four (at least) – if he can keep Jonny's spot
Friday 10 June 2011
Toby Flood, the England fly-half whose domestic rugby season with Leicester ended a fortnight ago with the crushing disappointment not only of defeat by Saracens in the Aviva Premiership final but also the indignity of bring overshadowed in the half-back arts by a teenager, Owen Farrell, seems eager for me to know that, as he prepares to join up with his international teammates next weekend, everything in his garden is rosy. He is not, however, speaking metaphorically.
"I find gardening really therapeutic," he says. "And it's not just that I like to collect stuff to put on the bonfire... the people who owned my house before put in a lot of time in the garden, so if I just left it I'd feel guilty. There's peonies, foxgloves, rhododendron, hydrangea, and I monitor it, because I'm worried they might come round the corner one day and not like what they see. I come back from training and water the plants, tidy things up..."
I like this image of a rugby union star lovingly tending his peonies, but somehow it would seem more improbable if Flood were an ugly front-row bruiser, or even a squish-nosed, shaven-headed back of the Mike Tindall variety. Instead, he is male-model pretty, with a complexion that looks as if has never known a blemish, let alone a bruise. As an interviewee, Flood is smoother than smooth; friendly, chatty and eloquent without ever straying off-message, either in terms of Leicester or England.
Here he is, for example, on that scintillating display at Twickenham by 19-year-old Farrell, which can't have been easy to take, given that it prompted some rugby writers to cast Flood – still only 25 himself – almost as yesterday's man, in imminent danger of being toppled by the young pretender.
"Look, the guy had a fantastic game and a stand-out season. He deserves all the plaudits he gets. He should be proud of what he achieved. He came into the side when they decided Alex Goode was more suited to full-back, and gave a really good account of himself. That can only be good for English rugby. We want to have massive competition in all areas. Look at Tom Wood, the player of the year, putting pressure on James Haskell and Nick Easter. Look at the England cricket team. There's competition in most areas, certainly as a quick bowler. And do they pick Bopara or Morgan? Real competition drives the squad forward."
Well said, but let me fling him the nearest I've got to a hospital pass. Despite bagging all 18 of Leicester's points in the final, he also missed two simple kicks that would have landed the silverware. This infuriated Leicester coach Richard Cockerill, who fumed afterwards that Flood's technique had been damaged during last year's autumn internationals by England's kicking coach Dave Alred. So, does Flood share Cockerill's concern? After all, if England are to make an impact in the World Cup this autumn, the kicker's radar will have to be functioning perfectly.
"No, not really," he says. " Dave has got me carrying a bit more momentum into the ball, but it's nothing drastic. I feel comfortable with my kicking. I've missed a couple more than I did last year but I'm still kicking in a decent percentage. I kicked 90, 95 per cent in the Six Nations, and it maybe hasn't evolved quite how we'd have liked since then, but I'm pretty happy. Once I'm back in the England camp I'm confident we'll nail down a couple of issues I've got."
I would welcome a little more insight into his "couple of issues" but it will not, I sense, be forthcoming. Instead, let's talk about the reason we're meeting at Ealing Trailfinders Rugby Club in west London, where Flood is publicising Disney XD's admirable Aim High campaign, which offers youngsters the chance for one-on-one mentoring from high-achieving sportsmen. Had Flood been given the chance to do something similar, what would he have been like? "Like a kid in a toy factory," he says. "I remember going to St James's Park for a stadium tour, and I absolutely loved it. Alan Shearer was my hero, and to see where he sat, where he changed, was awesome".
Flood was the sort of child, he tells me, "who should have been on a leash. I was a nightmare really, into everything, and my mum and dad accommodated all my needs. I suppose I was a little bit spoilt". Still, his parents' indulgence has left him with lots of enthusiasms. "Yeah, tennis, fly-fishing, cricket. I play a lot of cricket, for a little village team ... no, I mustn't say a little team, a huge team, sensationally top of the league after being promoted last year."
As for his childhood devotion to Shearer, it is ironic that the popularity of football over rugby in Newcastle – surely the only place in England where Magpies have supremacy over Falcons? – played a part in his decision to leave his home-town club in 2008. Leicester, he discovered, was very different.
"The first time I rocked up there, people in the street were saying hello. And I thought, 'is there someone who looks like me in Leicester?' That had never really happened in Newcastle. At Leicester we get 24,000 fans every home game, which shows what it means to the community. But at Newcastle, if Newcastle United had a home game on a Saturday, we'd lose half our crowd. It's sad because the club has a lot of potential, but if you think who's left... Jonny, Jamie Noon, Matt Burke, Lee Dickson, myself, Ben Woods, James Grindal, Mathew Tait... that's a long list of people who could have facilitated a bit of progress."
It was the first man on his list whose immaculate boots Flood had to fill, both for Newcastle and England. Jonny Wilkinson was his mentor and role-model; now, notwithstanding the progress of young Farrell, the evergreen Wilkinson is Flood's principal rival for the Red Rose No 10 shirt. I ask whether this creates tension between them? "Not really. He wants the 10 shirt back. It's my job to keep it away from him. He's always been very easy company, and actually we talk about everything but rugby." It wasn't always thus. In Flood's early years at Newcastle, Wilkinson helped him with his kicking and his "game-management", although it was mainly by watching that the younger man absorbed the World Cup-winner's influence.
"When I got there, the guy supposed to be the best 10 in the world was the guy working harder than everyone else. At first I thought, 'why is he training so hard if he's the best in the world?' and then I worked it out. That was my apprenticeship really. Learning that it's all about the work ethic."
Once he joined the international scene, however, Flood had more learning to do. "No disrespect, but Newcastle at home is not the same as Ireland away. The physicality and intensity are very different, and so is the mindset [in international week], otherwise you end up overwhelmed just by the spectacle. The best Test-match players I've ever seen are the laid-back characters who shrug their shoulders and carry on, like Mike Catt. Or Phil Vickery, who got very wound up an hour before the game, but around the squad was very chilled out." As for himself, he feels he has finally grown into his shirt. "Being a 10, when you're 21 or 22, you feel you can't go round telling someone of 32, 33, the guys with 60 caps, what to do. Getting more experience and confidence allows you to express your views."
All this, though, depends on the individual. There has never been much evidence, for instance, of Chris Ashton's inner uncertainty, and Flood smiles when I mention the dynamic rugby league emigre. "He plays as if he has fire in his belly, and wants the ball every time. I'd say his game understanding of [rugby] league is better, and he still runs the lines he would in the 13-man code, but it takes a very swift mind to pick him up, because if he thinks someone is going to make a break, he's already on his way. Drew Mitchell in Australia is similar, popping up everywhere."
Flood obviously thinks deeply about rugby tactics; might he be a Leicester or England coach of the future? "No, I get bored with the sound of my own voice. Actually, I have thought about coaching, but the game moves so quickly. If you leave the game for even a year, it's difficult to catch up."
Which brings us back to Ashton; also difficult to catch up. If there was anything Flood didn't know about the wing's attacking technique before Leicester's Premiership semi-final against Northampton, intensive video analysis filled in the gaps. Then, of course, Flood's team-mate Manu Tuilagi filled in Ashton. And Flood himself had a lively altercation with his England team-mate Dylan Hartley, afterwards citing Joe Greene, late of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who apparently once said that he would flatten his own mother if she was playing for the opposition.
"Look, it's not really a big deal," says Flood now. "As a professional sportsman, respect is earnt by playing the game well, and hard, from tennis to football to rugby. [Tuilagi] was cited, banned, and it's finished. It's the last thing I need to comment on. He's been dealt with. It [the subsequent brouhaha] took away from the way we played that game, because they came to Welford Road really thinking they had a chance."
Having overcome Northampton by fair means and foul, Leicester were favourites to beat Saracens in the final. That they didn't made the domestic season a failure, says Flood. "And I think a large number of the guys feel the same. It's hard to get over. But failure makes things clearer in terms of our ambition. That's the way to face up to failure."
So, as he contemplates one more week of relaxing on a beach, or deadheading his peonies, what are his ambitions? "Well, if we can get to the semi-final of the World Cup, we can readdress from there. With Leicester I want to win multiple Premierships and one Heineken Cup at least. And personally, just keep improving. Maybe be a bit more pragmatic at times. There's a big onus on me to make the right decision, whether to kick or run, so it's important to understand the flow of the game. But I'm not asking to be compared with anyone. I just want to get better in my own skin." And very lovely skin it is, too.
Toby Flood is mentoring for Disney XD's Aim High, which offers fans the chance to take part in one-on-one mentorships. Make sure you get involved by visiting www.disneyxd.co.uk/aimhigh
Flood of numbers
193 The amount of points amassed by the fly-half for his country, putting him ninth on the list of the all-time points scorers for England.
25 Points scored by Flood in England's 35-18 victory over Australia last November, the highest total by any player in an England-Australia fixture.
40 The amount of caps Flood has won for England, since making his debut in the 25-18 defeat by Argentina in November 2006.
35 In his almost three-dozen Premiership games for Leicester Tigers, Flood has scored 460 points.
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