Rodber completes his rehabilitation

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Jack Rowell's dignity could have done without the catcalling that accompanied his appearance in the committee box at Leicester, but the manager would not have minded once he had seen Tim Rodber re-establish his lost status as prospective England captain.

And there was much more than Rodber for Rowell to relish in the Midlands' 40-19 demolition of Western Samoa. Matthew Dawson, for instance, produced a performance as immaculate as Rodber's - which therefore indicated his worthiness to be England's scrum-half for the Twickenham Test on 16 December.

More generally the divisional side, an unholy mixture of mainly Leicester and Northampton players skilfully attuned by Rodber and Peter Rossborough, their coach, produced a nicely varied brand of rugby which could usefully act as a model for England not only against Samoa but into the future.

Rodber's rehabilitation is a cheering response to personal misadventure. The burly flanker has not been himself since he played one of the great individual games of Test rugby when England thrashed South Africa in Pretoria 18 months ago. Three days later, the red mist came down, he was sent off in a flurry of punches against Eastern Province, and his world fell in.

Rodber, a 26-year-old army officer, would now agree it has taken this long to rehabilitate himself, his shoulder injury and poor performance in England's defeat by the Springboks last month coming as a culmination. In distress he turned to Rowell, patriarch and now father-confessor, and after the self-renewal of leading the Midlands to this handsome victory, Rodber was ready to make his self-appraisal public too.

"I didn't play well against South Africa and got slated," he said. "Fair enough, it's a professional game, but I was determined to silence the critics, at least for a weekend." Wednesday is now the preferred date for announcing the England team and on this evidence Rodber has surely secured his place.

The threat from Lawrence Dallaglio (who "deserves another game", according to Rodber) has thus shifted to Andy Robinson's open-side position, though more or less everyone among the 8,000 at Welford Road would prefer to get their own Neil Back.

Rodber's mind has been settled by the fulfilling experience of captaining Northampton while they have laid waste the remainder of the Second Division, while his body needed a game like this to inure itself to the demands of international rugby. The process was climaxed by a fireside chat with uncle Jack last Tuesday.

"Over the last two weeks, I've done a lot of thinking about my own game and why I'm being criticised," Rodber said. "I've thought about getting sent off, about being captain of Northampton, and about my priority playing for England to get a bit of the physical edge back - whether that's being a bit more nasty or whatever. Jack and I had a long chat about my game, about where I'm going and what I want to achieve. It did me a lot of good. I'm a lot happier."

Especially after the inspirational manner of both his leadership and his play against the Samoans. The Midlands, divisional championship for what it is worth, distilled a mixture of Leicester's mauling and Northampton's rucking into a potent mixture - too potent, for sure, for Pat Lam's team, who were scourged in the scrum as well as by Martin Bayfield in the line- out.

Two penalty tries were the product of the tourists' travails, but it would be wrong to imagine the Midlands' sole intent was to scrummage Samoa to distraction. On the contrary, the home pack were mobile enough to win ample loose ball and, if the backs were less incisive than Samoa's, it was not for want of trying.

Rodber, fittingly, and two of his Northampton Matts, Allen and Dawson, made the Midlands' try tally five, Dawson's being due reward for an exceptional contribution singled out afterwards by Bryan Williams, the Samoan coach. Rodber did his best to be even-handed but could scarcely disguise his view that Dawson is ready to take Kyran Bracken's England place.

"Kyran is a very good friend of mine and a very good player and the incumbent," Rodber said, with painful diplomacy. "But in my opinion Matt has a lot to offer and I hope he proved that if Kyran is not picked or is injured, then Matt Dawson is capable of stepping in."

Dawson himself affects what you might call insouciant fatalism: "I'm playing the sort of rugby I enjoy playing and if that's good enough to play for England the management may look at me. But I'm not trying to be a selector."

While the next few days are filled with promise for Dawson, the next two weeks are looking ominous for the Samoans. In Scotland the problem was with the midweek team, but in England they have now lost twice on Saturday and the team who faced the Midlands contained a dozen of those who drew with the Scots at Murrayfield.

As Williams pointed out, the successful London game on Wednesday had made it a long, hard week and his players had already had a long, hard season. Yet curiously they grew stronger the longer this match went on, though by the time the twice-warned Mark Birtwistle, then Alex Telea and To'o Vaega scored their tries they were playing for no more than the pride they have in plenty.

Midlands: Tries Rodber, Allen, Dawson; Penalty tries 2; Conversions Grayson 3; Penalties Grayson 2. Western Samoa: Tries Birtwistle, Telea, Vaega; Conversions Kellett 2.

MIDLANDS: J Quantrill (Rugby); R Subbiani, B Whetstone (Bedford), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth (Leicester), J Phillips, M Bayfield, T Rodber (capt, all Northampton), C Tarbuck, N Back (Leicester). Replacement: A Smallwood (Nottingham) for Subbiani, 27.

WESTERN SAMOA: H-V Patu (Vaiala); B Lima (Marist), T Vaega (Te Atatu), K Tuigamala (Scopa), A Telea (Petone); D Kellett (Ponsonby), J Filemu (Wellington); M Mika (Otago University), O Matauiau (Moata'a), P Fatialofa (Manukau), M Birtwistle (Suburbs), L Falaniko (Marist), S Kaleta (Ponsonby), P Lam (capt), S Vaifale (Marist).

Referee: C Thomas (Neath).