A wing with sting

Paul Trow meets the Wasps boy wonder who tackles Rory Underwood today; Generation game: Paul Sampson, a new breed of union player, has burst on to a stage where old masters still take the lead
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The Independent Online
USUALLY when Jeremy Guscott chases after an opponent it's a fair bet that he will catch up. But not this time. As the yards unfolded, the gap kept widening until the England and British Lions centre gave up the ghost.

Guscott's fleet-footed quarry, 19-year-old Paul Sampson, duly rounded off his field-long dash with one of the tries which enabled Wasps to sting Courage champions Bath 40-36 at the Recreation Ground last weekend. Swift though Guscott is, he would be the first to admit that his chances of overhauling someone who had clocked 10.48sec for 100 metres just two months previously were a trifle slim.

Sampson, recently of Woodhouse Grove School, Leeds, and League Three side Otley, recorded that time while winning the English Schools' 100m final in Sheffield this summer. A week or so later, fewer than half of the 105 sprinters who lined up for the heats over the same distance at the Atlanta Olympics went faster.

Such pace is rare even in a power-orientated sport like rugby union, especially when the wing in question prefers to play at fly-half or full- back. Clearly Wasps' director of rugby, the former England captain Nigel Melville, knew what he was doing when he brought Sampson down with him to the west London club from Otley.

But Melville, himself something of a child prodigy when he played for the British Lions in New Zealand in 1983 at the age of 21, is quick to sound a note of caution when optimists start to predict a glittering and imminent international career for the shaven-headed Sampson.

"Paul has a lot of learning to do before he has the basic ingredients of an England player. He must work on his strength, tackling, defence and positioning," said Melville the mentor, displaying just a hint of protectiveness towards his protege.

"But this is becoming a young man's game and if you're good enough you're old enough. The age of today's top players is dropping dramatically - you only have to look at the way the All Blacks and Australia bring their young players through."

Sampson agrees. "I need to do more weights and improve my speed of thought. Playing against Jason Robinson last weekend made me realise what I have to do. I must prove myself in the league first before anything else, so I suppose my long-term ambition is to be the England fly-half at the 1999 World Cup. But I'd play for England even if they selected me at prop.

"The guys here at the club are great, and I really hope Lawrence Dallaglio gets the England captaincy. He brings you down to earth if you're cocky and picks you up if you're down. Every game is going to be tough this season - you can't go up against anyone thinking it's going to be easy." Even West Hartlepool? "Even West Hartlepool."

Ignoring all talk about the Five Nations and next summer's Lions tour to South Africa, Sampson is focusing on his next immediate assignment - at Loftus Road this afternoon when the unbeaten Wasps take on Leicester. That means a confrontation with the 33-year-old Rory Underwood, England's most capped player who was only 20 when he made his international debut.

"I met Rory at the England squad session I attended last season," said the respectful but far-from-overawed tyro. "He's a great guy. He's done everything in the game. I'm really looking forward to marking him, and perhaps scoring a try against him."

Sampson's involvement in that squad session last January remains one of the more remarkable decisions of Jack Rowell's reign as England manager. "When the headmaster called me into his study, I thought I was in trouble," said Sampson. "But it was even more of a shock when I discovered what it was really all about. When I met them, I was amazed at how the England lads accepted me as a player and not as an 18-year-old schoolboy. It was a fantastic experience."

His school days now behind him, Sampson is taking an A-level in sports studies at Richmond College and hopes to do a sports degree. As a fully- fledged professional, is it fair to assume that he has more spending power than the average teenage student? "No comment," he says cautiously. "Let's just say that Wasps are seeing me all right."

Sampson's sporting pedigree alone should justify Wasps' faith in him. His father played on the wing for Wakefield Trinity, his uncle was a loose forward at Wakefield and Castleford, his mother won the England schools high jump title and a cousin, Denise Ramsden, ran in the 4x400m relay at the 1976 Olympics.

With a self-belief born of confidence rather than arrogance, he says he would love to take on Jonah Lomu one day, believing that judo shows how to bring the giant All Black to ground.

Ironically, though, Sampson's greatest admiration is reserved for Guscott. "I was really impressed by his commitment and his ability to spot the half gap. He can be devastating - I'd love to play alongside him." After last weekend's forlorn pursuit, Guscott would doubtless prefer to be on the same side as well.

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