Rivals united by the half chance

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP; Dawson delights in the big challenge; England's scrum-half has been quick to seize his international opportunity. He spoke to Hugh Bateson
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Any lingering doubts Matthew Dawson had that he might not thrive in the big time were blown away when he took his first steps into the famously hostile Parc des Princes for his Five Nations debut two weeks ago.

The arena and the reception meted out to visitors have melted the resolve of bigger men than England's boyish new scrum-half, and, to be frank, he was not quite sure how he would react to the ordeal. He should not have worried.

"The atmosphere was just as I was hoping, rather than expecting. Very loud and very hard - it nearly hits you," he said with visible affection. "I ran out with Jon Sleightholme to warm up half an hour before the game and with everyone booing at me it was actually quite uplifting - it didn't worry me at all, which I was very surprised about. I looked over at Jon and he was smiling in the same way that I was."

And when virtually his first touch of the ball - a steepling kick for Sleightholme to race on to - produced the clearest opening of the game, Dawson was off, if not always running, at the hub of England's well-rehearsed Parisian game plan. That kick launched more than an England attack. "Grays [his club half-back partner and fellow Five Nations debutant, Paul Grayson] was screaming 'get it in the box, get it in the box', and it went up, and I looked up and saw it was good, and built from there, really."

Not quite well enough, of course, which he appreciates as he prepares for today's encounter with Wales at what should be an altogether friendlier Twickenham. There was much criticism - as there always is these days - of England's approach in Paris. Dawson, characteristically for a scrum- half, turns defence into swift attack. "I think we were right to have the game plan that we did. The experienced heads have been there, and it is the way to beat France. Unfortunately, we didn't execute it 100 per cent for the whole game. In another game those experienced players will say 'come on, let's do this game plan this time'. It all depends on the opposition.

"Jon Callard was completely right on Rugby Special when he said that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa do not play 'expansive' rugby, they play total rugby. They have got all the different parts of the game and they play them well, and that's what we aspire to.

"We do not aspire to throw the ball through double-misses to the winger and expect him to score. We want to create a situation where we can give the ball to him and then there is a certainty he will score or have a good run - and that will be whether it is through the middle, or through a kicking game or through a passing game."

That Dawson can play all of these at the age of 23 should not be a surprise. A product of a famous rugby school, the Royal Grammar, High Wycombe, he earned five caps for England Under-18s, and has long been marked out as a future international. And he has played through the various styles during Northampton's rise and fall, culminating in last season's sterile procession to relegation.

A summer of transformation has produced attractive, runaway leaders of the Second Division. "The way we were playing last year is not good enough to get in the top three or four in the First Division. So Geech [the former Scotland and Lions coach, Ian McGeechan, who is in charge at Northampton] sat and thought what was the best way for our club to play. We trained that way and practised that way, and now it is paying off."

There is an obvious parallel here with England's travails. But Dawson is cautious about drawing it too closely. "England's is not a rigid way of playing, and there is structure to what we are doing at Northampton. Obviously, you cannot just translate it straight into international level, but certainly there are things which I take from the Northampton game into England, and I hope there will be things I can take back as well.

"It's a completely different ball park - I was always told that it would be. It's just a matter of trying to realise what decision to take, when."

This is the core of the scrum-half's job, of course, and England's fortunes this afternoon depend as much on Dawson's eyes and brains as on his hands and feet. "I am not there to force things to happen. If you force things, as Geech is always telling me, they just won't happen. But, of course, there are situations where you have to say to yourself, 'let's try to make something happen'. After all, all 15 of us are international players and there is meant to be something special about our play."

He will obviously be hoping to spark those around him today, for even though the years of ritual English humiliation at the hands of the Welsh through the 1970s were in his infancy, Dawson is as aware as anyone of the baggage which goes with these games. "Oh, you've just got to be - the history, the tradition - I went to enough Wales games when I was a youngster."

So he knows pretty much what to expect when he marches out this afternoon. "I played at Twickenham against Western Samoa, which was a good atmosphere, but everyone said: 'Wait until you get to the Five Nations' and then you play in that. But you are at Parc des Princes and it's a cauldron and you feel the physical presence of the shouting - you can feel it on your body. And now you get to play at home, but it's against the Welsh, who will bring thousands and thousands of supporters. But you are on your home turf."

And there is one other thing that will spur Dawson this afternoon. All through he has been composed, finding his words as effortlessly as his stand-off, but there is one thing that catches him out. "Losing in Paris was a completely different feeling. After all that effort and that defence and that tackling - some of which was outstanding - and to come away with nothing where I certainly felt we had deserved something, it was very..." and here he really had search for the word before almost spitting it out, "...downheartening."

His determination to avoid a repeat, Wales should be aware, is all too clear.

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