Howarth in league of nations

Travelled and talented fly-half settles on Wales.
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SHANE HOWARTH is a puzzled man. He has twice been picked and dropped by different countries. In neither case was there any explanation. In neither case has he any idea as to why, or what he did wrong. In both cases he has had no further contact with the selectors, coaches or management.

In 1994, having rattled up 54 points in his first four matches for the All Blacks, the Auckland full-back (as he then was) was dumped as Laurie Mains opted for Glen Osborne. By the time it was realised that things were not quite working out, Howarth had switched codes to rugby league. "I was disillusioned by then," said Howarth, who is now back in the union ranks as stand-off with Sale, for whom he plays against Saracens at Watford today. "And I turned pro with league. I never even got a phone call from Laurie. To this day I have no idea what I did wrong."

Then just last year came the second mystifying moment. England decided that since he qualified to play under International Board rules - the statutory minimum of three years having elapsed since his last appearance for New Zealand - that he would be useful in an hour of need. "Mike Catt was concussed," Howarth said. "Alex King had an injury and at the time they did not have a lot of faith in Paul Grayson. I must have been fifth or sixth on their list, but they asked me if I would play against the All Blacks at Twickenham in the Second Test.

"I think if I had had more time to integrate myself with the squad I would have said yes, after all I qualify through one of my grandfathers, who comes from Lancashire. But the Test was just four days away, plus I would be turning out against my own country.

"I wouldn't have had a problem if I had been an established member of the England squad, but this was different and, I felt, difficult. I thanked them but said not for this match. I haven't heard a word from them since. Maybe it was because I turned them down then. Whatever, no one has subsequently been in touch with me. Although John Mitchell, who is on the England coaching staff, is also my coach at Sale, I am not the sort to go and ask for an explanation."

But, as Howarth joked the other day when he announced that he was prepared to turn out for Wales, he remains a walking Grand Slam of qualifications. His other grandfather is Welsh, so he can pull on the scarlet jersey. But he has married Marcella Erceg, a Croatian and was approached by them to join a number of fellow Kiwis, including another former All Black, Frano Botica. He declined. "I have higher aspirations than that," he said.

Those could be met with Wales. When his old Auckland coach Graham Henry discovered Howarth had Welsh ancestry he pounced. Howarth was in. "Graham approached me. And since he is a good coach and I played under him for seven years, I said yes. I know the way he thinks, I understand his approach.

"It is a big decision but in fact I think the Welsh approach to rugby is similar to the New Zealand one; they are each as passionate about the game, it is almost a religion in Wales. I would have no qualms about playing for them. I may be a New Zealander, but once I become a part of the squad my commitment will be total. I have strong Welsh connections and a lot of friends in Wales."

For all his multi-national qualifications Howarth is lucky even to be walking around, let alone playing on a rugby field. He could easily have been confined to a wheelchair following an accident when he was a youngster. "A load of us were diving into the sea off some rocks north of Auckland," says Howarth. "I was a stupid little teenager and I dived too well. Whereas all my friends were just diving off into the water I had to do the big number. I did a swan dive, the water was shallower than I had realised. I dislocated one of my vertebrae and my head was put in what were called head tongs, which had weights and a pulley system to keep everything in the right place and I had to lie flat on my back in bed for three weeks. I haven't dived since."

Now the Howarth neck is on the block again. But at least he knows what he is doing this time. If he is selected for Wales, Howarth knows he is diving in at the deep end - and he is a more than able swimmer.