Majestic Boot of England

Chris Rea talks to Rob Andrew whose exploits have earned him the MBE while their trusted place kicker is poised to prove once again that he is the man for the pressure zone
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The Independent Online
ON THAT tempestuous Pilkington Cup final morning last month when the news broke on a disbelieving world that Will Carling had been sacked as England captain, Jack Rowell was trying to conceal himself on the outer fringes of the West car park at Twickenham.

For one of his stature and appearance, it was a vain attempt at anonymity and eventually he gave up the unequal struggle. In the course of our conversation, the England manager confided that there would be two contenders for the vacancy as captain in the World Cup - "and I shall choose the one who, in the closing minutes against Australia, when we are three points down, can make the decisions which will win the match".

It later transpired that the two he had in mind were Dean Richards and Rob Andrew and, although I have a strong hunch that it was Richards who was Rowell's intended choice, the England manager's scenario was eerily prophetic. If Rowell has yet to be fully convinced of Andrew's merit as a fly-half, he has never for a moment doubted his importance to this England team. That much has been evident since the first Test against the Springboks last year when Andrew not only scored 27 of England's 32 points but ran the show behind England's dominant pack. If Stuart Barnes had not contemplated retirement before that day, there was little else he could do after it.

Nor has Rowell ever underestimated the inner strength of this outwardly mild and charming man. To have survived in international rugby for 10 years, and to have withstood some of the most poisonously vitriolic criticism in the process, requires more than a forgiving heart and a thick skin.

It takes an almost ruthless will to succeed and a competitiveness which surpasses the understanding of ordinary mortals. Yet, typically, Andrew has been treating the instant fame which has followed his dropped goal against the Australians, and which has taken countless hours of hard graft, monotonous repetition and solitary confinement on the world's rugby pitches to achieve, with amused indifference.

"That kick was merely the end product of a series of perfectly executed manoeuvres," he said. "First there was Mike Catt's superb touch kick. Then there was Brian Moore's throw to Martin Bayfield. If that had been even slightly off line we could have lost possession because John Eales was in tremendous form. But Brian got it just right - it was his best throw of the match. And finally there was the drive from the forwards which took us 10 yards upfield and brought me into range of the posts."

Nevertheless, Andrew concedes that he has never struck the ball more sweetly than he did at that moment and had it been at altitude it might still be in orbit. "But let's get this into perspective," he said. "That kick won a match not the World Cup. It's history now - as we will be if we lose to New Zealand."

But the present isn't quite ready to deliver Andrew to be enshrined in the lore of the game's immortals. A week in which he was proposed for a fantasy knighthood and a seat in the House of Lords ended with the reality of an MBE. He has been sanctified and deified, his wife Sara has been the subject of profiles, features and interviews, and there has been speculation that, from this one kick alone, Andrew could become a millionaire from endorsements and sponsorships. "It's all nonsense, but if it fills up a few newspaper and magazine columns. What's the harm in it?"

What Andrew cannot escape, however, is the imperishable fact that it was he who clinched the deal. He did it with the decisiveness of a matador's lethal thrust. Not even a try can produce such a singular act of finality. There is, after all, the conversion to come. Yet for Andrew it was not the dropped goal but the penalty which preceded it that he will hold as a personal treasure. It was that kick which brought the scores level at 22-22 and which ensured that there would at least be extra time. "That was the pressure kick, no doubt about it," he said. "We had been behind for 12 minutes and I knew that if I missed with less than three minutes remaining we would, in all likelihood, be out of the World Cup."

The penalty had been awarded to England in what Andrew and his kicking coach, Dave Alred, have defined as the Red Zone. Within that area, Andrew does not expect to miss. At 8.30 on the morning of the match, having cut through the red tape of officialdom, the two had gone down to Newlands to practise. Alred recalls that Andrew had kicked 30 out of 33 attempts from the Red Zone. "He was striking the ball well and I knew he was in the groove," Alred said.

Alred also knew that no amount of tuition, no amount of mental preparation, could fully arm an individual for the task which now confronted his pupil. But Andrew's nerve held, the ball flew on its unwavering course between the Australian posts and England were not only level but, having for so long been behind, now held the psychological advantage.

Such is Andrew's control and self-esteem nowadays that he is able to divorce his responsibilities as a goal-kicker from his duties as a fly- half. Early in his international career when he was England's front-line kicker, he lacked the maturity and confidence to perform consistently well in both roles. It was therefore with huge relief that he conceded the kicking duties to others and England were fortunate at the time in having marksmen of rare accuracy in Simon Hodgkinson and Jon Webb.

"I knew full well that if I happened to be out of sorts with my kicking, then it would have an adverse effect on my general play," Andrew explained. "And as my success rate with the boot in those days was no higher than 50 per cent, you can work out for yourself how far below par I was operating."

His strike rate in this tournament is staggering - over 80 per cent - and last Sunday in Cape Town he looked and felt comfortable in all aspects of this game. His line-kicking had been sound and the basic tactical plan had not blinded him to the game's best attacking opportunity when it came and it was his quick thinking which opened the way for Tony Underwood to blaze past Damian Smith for England's try. "Although," Andrew conceded, "my first thought was to kick."

Of the many correct options he took that afternoon, none was shrewder than his decision to give the ball to Mike Catt for the touch kick which set up his unforgettable winning strike. Together with Alred, Catt has been working here to improve the length and line of his touch kicking and at his best can now out-hit Andrew by 10 yards. Knowing that England would need every inch they could squeeze from the kick, Andrew tossed the ball to his full-back.

"Those extra few yards were crucial. Without them we wouldn't have got close enough," Andrew said. "And that," he added, "is why I recognise the personal praise and adulation of the last few days for what they are worth. What really matters is the respect of the players. Those moments together in the changing-room at the end of the match - the comradeship, the relief, the sense of fulfilment and overwhelming feeling of contentment - those are the memories I'll always have and the moments that mean more to me than anything else."