Healey on fast curve

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The Independent Online
WITH the future of English rugby at stake, it's just as well that Austin Healey is an old banger in name only. The New Zealand Barbarians demonstrated that youth must have its head when Christian Cullen and Carlos Spencer opened Twickenham's eyes to the speed and fluency of the game in the southern hemisphere. An indication that the search is now on for Cullens and Spencers of our own came last week when Healey, a sprightly scrum-half whose name would have been Jensen had he been born a girl, was added to the 30 players preparing for England's Five Nations' opener against Scotland on Saturday week.

"During the England A session at Bisham Abbey, Les Cusworth, the backs' coach, told me I'd been called into the squad," said the 23-year-old Leicester player. "In theory, I've got a chance of being capped but it's not too realistic with Andy Gomarsall and Kyran Bracken around. Nevertheless, it's good to be involved."

Healey, who moved to Welford Road from Orrell last summer, has a more immediate concern - Leicester's European Cup final against Brive in Cardiff on Saturday. Even though the French club have seen off powerful opponents, including Harlequins and Cardiff, they are an unknown quantity. "I've seen Brive play on television, and they look a decent side with a strong pack," said Healey. "The European Cup is a great competition. I can see it turning into the Super-12 of the northern hemisphere.

"If we perform as we did in the semi-final against Toulouse I think we'll win, but if we play like we did against Northampton last weekend we'll lose."

Even in that unexpected Courage League defeat at Franklins Gardens, Healey stood out as a flair player who runs hard both with the ball and in defence. No corner of the pitch is out of bounds - a legacy, perhaps, of the four years he spent on the wing for Orrell and, previously, Waterloo before switching back to scrum-half last season when Dewi Morris retired.

"I learned the basics of scrum-half play at school [St Anselm's College, Cheshire] but the first games back were hard aerobically. I was aware of what to do and decision making was no problem, but I had to improve my passing and kicking. Now Bob Dwyer [Leicester's director of rugby] tells me to forget about all that out there. He believes in reacting naturally.

"Deano [Richards] keeps me on my toes and Neil Back is tremendous. I've never seen a player so technically sound in his position. I just follow him around the park so I'm there when he wins the ball. They say at the club if you're within five yards of Neil on the pitch then you're in the right place. I'm a lot fitter and stronger as a result of full-time training. I'm a stone heavier [14st] but I'm also faster."

Healey came to prominence as a teenager when he helped Waterloo beat Bath in the Pilkington Cup four seasons ago. "That was amazing. When I joined Waterloo the first choice scrum-half was Christian Saverimutto who played for Ireland last season. I badly wanted to play first-team rugby so I moved to the wing." He was not always so enthusiastic about rugby. "I don't come from a rugby background. I was better at football but my school wouldn't let me play for the county because they wanted me for their rugby team. Gradually I came round to rugby when I was 15."

He was also an accomplished athlete, specialising in 100 metres (in which he has broken 11 seconds) and, unusually for someone only 5ft 9in tall, the pole vault and high jump. He studied for a sport and physical education BA at Carnegie College, Leeds. During that period he won England Under- 21 and Students honours before graduating last year to the A team, and getting engaged to a police woman.

Healey has some trenchant views to complement his vision as a player. "People say that international rugby is a big step up but sometimes I wonder. It seems you get less chance to express yourself because it's so fast and there rarely seems any pattern. The Tri-Nations showed how much more powerful and quicker rugby is in the southern hemisphere. We must now move the game beyond them and make them catch us up for a change. To do that we must allow young players to come through. If clubs keep signing foreigners, we'll have no good youngsters in five years time."

Apart from the possibility that he will "come through" for his senior debut during the next two months, Healey must also be thinking about next summer's Lions tour of South Africa. "I'd love to go on it and I'd come back a much better player. To be coached by Ian McGeechan for eight weeks would be fantastic. If I don't make it, then perhaps I'll go on England's tour of Argentina instead. Failing that, it's Barbados for some waterskiing."

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