Onward Howard with brain and brawn

England's weapon is no secret to tournament favourites
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When Harvey Howard returned from his selfimposed exile in Australia to join England's squad in their preparations for the World Cup, areminder of his past was there to greet him.

When Harvey Howard returned from his selfimposed exile in Australia to join England's squad in their preparations for the World Cup, areminder of his past was there to greet him.

Chev Walker, just 18, told him that as a star-struck kid he had got Howard to autograph his T-shirt after playing for Leeds in the 1994 Challenge Cup final. "How old does that make me feel?" asked Howard in his unique blend of Scouse and Strine.

He is a mere 32, but he is rich in the sort of experience that England feel will be invaluable in a tournament nobody expects them to win. As the only Pom playing in Australia's National Rugby League, he knows the standard required - and he knows it not from vague assumptions, hearsay or distant memories, but from locking horns with their best week after week.

He has not arrived with any easy answers. "It's going to be very, very difficult to beat them," he said. "But this is such a young, enthusiastic squad and that is the biggest thing we have got going for us." Howard might not be quite as young as he was when he came into rugby league with Widnes - incredible as it now seems, as a winger - but the enthusiasm is still intact.

"He's been an absolute revelation," said the England coach, John Kear. "He's been superb in the training camp. He's dropped a few kilos and you can see how fresh and sharp he's looking. He knows it's his last World Cup and he wants to give it his best shot."

But it isn't just as simple as taking a prop who has been cutting the mustard with the Brisbane Broncos - the best team in the best competition in the world - and throwing him straight into the England team. For one thing, the ground rules are different. In Australia, under the unlimited interchange rule, Howard is on and off the field like a watercarrier. The longest continuous stint he did last season was eight minutes, although he might do that six or seven times in a match.

It is a way to earn a living - and life in Australia, where he has a beachside home in Cronulla, has its compensations - but it is not the rhythm he would like to be dancing to, hence his interest in a contract in Britain for next season.

"Sometimes you don't enjoy your football, because you know that, just when you're getting into your stride, the big hook comes up and you're off. I used to like those 60- or 70-minute stints in England."

The trouble is that Howard has been almost genetically modified to play in the short, sharp bursts demanded of Australian front-rowers. Under a World Cup rule much closer to the British model, he will have to be on the field for a lot longer; hence the need to shed the best part of a stone in search of the extra mobility he will require.

If he can find it, there is no doubt of his value, because Howard has gained more than a few extra pounds of muscle in Australia. By his own reckoning, he is twice the player he was with Widnes or Leeds, and he believes the difference is largely in the mind.

"The great thing about this game is mental toughness, and that is the main thing I've learned from Wayne Bennett at Brisbane. A lot of people thought the Broncos might struggle this season after losing individuals like Alfie Langer. So all the stress this year was on working for the team. We went to an army camp and it was so tough it physically broke a lot of the guys," said Howard, a hint of America's Deep South creeping into his chameleon accent during England's own training camp in Florida.

"That gave us the toughness that got us through the season and won us the Grand Final. However tough it got on the field, we could look at each other and know it couldn't be as tough as that camp. We didn't sleep, we didn't have anything proper to eat. Football was easy after that."

England's preparation in Florida hasn't been quite that spartan. But, when the going gets tough for the younger blokes, a word in the ear from Howard, promising them that it will all be worthwhile, generally does the trick.

Kear is certainly a convert to the value of having him in the squad - something which, until Howard convinced him of his hunger to be involved, he was cautious about putting his name to. "He has been a real bonus," said an England coach who is realistic enough to know that he must pull a few successful strings if England are to surprise their critics. "If I was still coaching a club and he was available, he would be the first player I'd sign."

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