Profile: Return of the English giant

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The Independent Online
ADJECTIVES and verbs come easily to mind when trying to paint a word picture of some of England's rugby players. Jeremy Guscott can be said to glide past defenders with a cheek that borders on the insouciant. Will Carling bursts powerfully through tackles and cruises around the field, jaw out, bristling with pace, anxious to follow up a high kick by his stand-off and launch himself into a tackle. Wade Dooley stalks the pitch, a towering figure. As if his height is not enough, (he is known as the Blackpool Tower because he comes from Lancashire) he has a look in his eye during internationals that brooks little interference.

But Mike Teague, the socks-down, hair every-which-way strong man in England's back row? How does one describe him? A yeoman of England type? Certainly. Heroic? Perhaps. No one who has seen his bloodied legs, his determined body in an international shirt could deny that he was a crucial player in the Lions' victory over Australia in 1989 as well as in England's World Cup team last autumn. Successive stirring performances, first as blindside flanker and then at No 8, left his right shoulder so ravaged that he had to spend nearly three months off work.

At Gloucester, however, the adjectives used to describe Teague are less flattering, for he is one of 12 players who left the west country team in the summer. While some of his former team-mates made their way to Wasps, London Welsh and Bedford, Teague drove 45 minutes up the motorway to join Moseley, a club set in a sea of suburbia in the south-west corner of Birmingham. 'It's surprising who you can get by asking, isn't it,' Alex Keay, Moseley's director of coaching administration, says with a foxy grin. After being invited to join Moseley by Keay, Teague made his first league appearance for his new club against Bedford yesterday.

Mickey Booth, the chairman of Gloucester's selectors, talks about Teague's departure as a father might if his favourite daughter married someone totally unsuitable. He is unable to hide the anger and sarcasm in his voice as he does so.

'I have no idea why he left,' he said. 'His father is an ardent supporter of Gloucester. His uncle is an ardent supporter. I know he left us twice before, once to go to Cardiff and once to go to Stroud, but he is still regarded as a Gloucester product. He came through the Old Blues. When his form saying he wanted to leave the club was presented to be signed, which is what happens in this amateur game, it was signed. When the committee was informed, everybody was staggered. Mike Teague didn't play a single game for us last season so in terms of our team he's not a loss but it is an absolute shock that he would want to leave Gloucester and go up the road to Moseley.'

In the weeks that have passed since Teague left Gloucester, he has had to explain himself again and again. And as he does so this time he gives the impression that he has said enough, what is done is done.

'I've got to face facts now,' he said quietly. 'I'm over 30 now (he will be 33 next month). I was very, very much a hero at Gloucester and I wanted to be remembered as being at the top of my game. The last game I played at Gloucester was in the World Cup build-up when I led England out at Kingsholm, against Gloucester. There is no bigger honour for me than to lead my country out against my club. I played down there at the top of my form. I did not want to be someone who is a journeyman, someone who is in the Gloucester team along for the ride. They're very streetwise down at Kingsholm. On the pitch there's nowhere to hide. They very quickly make it known if they don't think much of you.'

Roger Uttley, a former Lion and captain of England and England's coach up to the conclusion of the World Cup, knows Teague well. 'There are flashy flankers and then there is Mike Teague,' said Uttley, who was himself a back-row forward of some versatility. 'He's a nuts and bolts man. He has tremendous upper body strength. He loves nothing better than getting down on the ground to secure the ball. He is a very effective forward. Gloucester have a reputation for producing strong, aggressive and abrasive forwards. He is the epitome of that.'

This being so, it is something of a surprise when you meet Teague and discover that his voice is soft and has a hint of sibilance about it. A game that leaves its calling cards on most forwards has treated him kindly. His face is well- nigh unmarked: no broken nose, no cauliflower ears, no thickening of the tissues over the eyes. He has a face that would cause Gloucester matrons chatting to one another over tea to pronounce him 'a nice young man'.

His blue eyes contain no hint of suspicion that you might want something from him that he doesn't want to give. Along his upper lip straggles a thin, almost cad-like, Ronald Colman moustache. The impression of size he gives is created more by the breadth of his shoulders and his upper body, which clearly contribute to his 16 1/2 stone, than by his 6ft 3 1/2 in.

At training last Thursday gnats dive-bombed one another in the glare of Moseley's floodlights in the warmth of a September evening. It soon became clear that Teague was neither the largest nor the noisiest player present. In fact, in his blue tracksuit he was conspicuous by the way he blended in. The visitor heard his voice only once in a 1 1/2 hours training session. At a line- out practice the thrower-in aimed at Teague, who jumped and caught the ball. 'Was that all right Mike?' he asked. 'Perfect,' said Teague in his west country burr.

On a wall outside the Moseley changing room is pinned a letter from Rex Hazledene, the Rugby Football Union's fitness adviser, listing some fitness standards that were regarded as acceptable, for good and elite rugby players. Teague didn't need to know what they were. He knows he is fit. He doesn't need to be tested to prove it.

As a 15-year-old he held the Gloucestershire record for 400 metres - 'it was 51 something, not bad but not very good either.' These days he trains with a group of men known as the Mad Dogs, men who run through the Forest of Dean, scrambling up hills, over ledges, down screes, all in an attempt to get themselves fit enough to take part in the gruelling Man v Horse v Mountain Bike competition to be held in mid-Wales in the summer. Running for 1 1/2 hours is nothing for Teague, who also rides motor bikes competitively on Sundays in the summer (he is sponsored to the tune of pounds 5,000 annually by Cecils KTM of Ledbury). He did one such 12-mile run last Wednesday. 'We stop for a breather occasionally,' he said. 'But we also carry bricks, wooden posts, logs.' With a fine sense of understatement, he adds: 'It's quite hard.'

Sure enough, when the fitness of England's players was tested at Leicester a few weeks ago, Teague was among the best of the forwards. 'He did almost as well as he did before the World Cup,' noted Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director. 'For a guy who has had a year out that is remarkable.'

Geoff Cooke, England's manager, has said that Teague has an aura about him on the field. 'It's to do with his effectiveness and presence,' said Cooke. 'He's got it, so has (Dean) Richards and so has Dooley. Mike's the bloke who causes the opposition a lot of trouble. He's the one they're talking about at the end of a game. He's the sort of fellow who has the ability to hold things together in a crisis. He is a strong man in every sense of the word.

'He is also very popular. I think it's to do with his ability to combine his west country, outdoor, brick-laying rough-hewn sort of manner with his quietness and gentleness. Then when he starts to play he transforms himself into a strong and powerful man who has almost an animal-like presence on the field.'

Cooke could not have demonstrated his regard for Teague more clearly than he did last week when he included the forward in England's party for the game against Canada next month. He did this despite Teague's having played only one game since the World Cup final - and a game that was not watched by a selector, either. 'Mike is an international performer,' Cooke said. 'We knew he was playing again. That was enough for us.'

Cooke has been encouraging versatility among his England players. He is seeking to instil flexibility in their minds, to encourage them to broaden their horizons. Teaguey, as he is known, is a case in point. For years he had played No 8. Then England him picked at No 6 - blindside flanker. Then during the World Cup he moved to No 8 to replace Richards. 'What we are looking for are total players,' Cooke said. 'Moving a No 8 to No 6 means a movement of a couple of feet in a scrum and at a line-out. That's not much, is it? Really, we're talking about numbers on the back of a shirt.'

Though he once refused to play blindside flanker for England, Teague now responds readily to Cooke's call for versatility. 'I'm not going to fall between two stools because I'm good enough to play for England in either position,' he said. 'I really don't mind whether I play No 8 or blindside. Basically No 8 is a major decision maker in a game. You control the link between the forwards and the backs. Therefore you have far more thinking to do. A blindside flanker has to be a little bit faster to the breakdown. You must protect the blindside so you'd be more of a defensive player.'

It has been a long and hard road to the top for Teague, a builder in and around Gloucester. He has broken both shoulders, an ankle and a knee and by returning to the game after his latest injury he is disobeying the advice of a specialist. He has retired at least once, which is why his total of caps is less than 30, whereas Carling and Brian Moore, who began their England careers after his, have been capped more often. Teague seems to find one more reason to don his country's colours and do duty once again. Mr Fatigue he is not. On occasions he seems indefatigable, the forward powered by the Duracell battery.

He is not a sublime player. What he does is thankless, dirty, not at all glamorous and often hard to see, going on, as it does, in the dungeons of a maul. England have had good cause to thank him in the past. They will probably have cause to do so again this season. And who knows? A trip with the British Isles to New Zealand next summer is not out of the question. There's still a lot of mileage in Mike Teague's tank.

(Photograph omitted)