Rugby: Regan can relish life as happy hooker

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: England's affable front rower has no time for wind-ups, he tells Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
The front row. A dark, brooding den of iniquity where strong, silent types engage in bouts of personal one-upmanship that, by tradition, are only loosely connected to the game of rugby going on around them. Mark Regan never really fitted the mould: he was always strong, certainly, but silent? Pull the other one.

"Ronnie", as he is rather predictably nicknamed, spent much of his early career talking the hind legs off the opposition donkeys with whom he came in close, grappling contact. On one famous occasion at the Memorial Ground, where his beloved Bristol were taking on a mighty set of New Zealand tourists from Canterbury, he politely informed Richard Loe - yes, the Richard Loe, the ultimate exhibit in the All Black chamber of horrors - that he was not all he had been cracked up to be. "I'm in an armchair here," Regan said at the very first scrum. "You're not much cop, are you?" Alan Sharp, another of the Bristol front-rowers that night, was understandably mortified. "Regan's bloody mad," Sharp said afterwards. "Of all the people in the world to upset, he has to choose him."

But that was then. Regan is now England's hooker as well as Bristol's - he won his first cap against the South Africa, the world champions, at Twickenham 16 months ago and has not missed a Test since - and as far as he is concerned, the burden of responsibility leaves no room for the tyro image. When he locks horns with the Irish in Dublin this afternoon, concentration will hold the whip hand over aggravation.

"Not that you don't need to give as you get," he said this week. "Think of me in the middle of that first scrum, stuck there with my arms up around my head and vulnerable to whatever they throw at me. Every Irish side in history has been a handful and I don't suppose for a minute that these boys will be any different.

"But I'm a professional rugby player representing my country and the only thing I'm interested in is doing a professional job. That means throwing well at the line-out, scrummaging hard in the set-piece, hitting every ruck and maul I'm required to hit and putting in my fair share of tackles. I used to enjoy a bit of a wind-up, but there doesn't seem to be the time these days."

Regan is in his pomp at present. Full-time training has earned him some increased ballast - "Not an inch of fat, mind you, and I'm quicker over 20 metres than I've ever been" - and as he has always scrummaged every ounce of his weight, the Irish can expect to encounter almost 17st of single-mindedness today. But it is the growing maturity of his play that makes him a live contender for a Lions trip this summer. Unlike some of his rivals, he prefers to work the "hard yards" rather than float around in the balmy open spaces of the threequarter line.

Life has not always been this sweet, though. Regan was under considerable pressure from the moment he was asked to take over the hooking role from Brian Moore, who spent most of his 64-cap international career not so much playing for England as symbolising them. "It was a big act to follow. I thought I might have received a good luck message from Brian but I've never heard a word from him. Perhaps that made me all the more determined to succeed."

It was not long before he felt the heat from the spotlight. Regan not only reads the press but takes what he reads to heart, and when he found himself on the wrong end of the tabloids after England's narrow defeat in Paris last year, his self-confidence was in danger of taking a one-way trip to oblivion.

"People are always telling me not to read the papers but I've never been able to help myself and on that occasion, I let it get to me. I was well wound up until Jack Rowell phoned me and said: 'I know you've taken some stick but don't worry about a thing because we're all right behind you.' That was outstanding, because he told me exactly what I needed to hear. I've got respect for a man who looks after his players like that."

He has been well looked after in other quarters, too. Back in the 1960s, Bristol boasted England hookers in John Thorne and the great John Pullin while a third club stalwart, John White, was an international reserve in the position. With that sort of tradition behind him, it is little wonder that Regan received the right help at the right time.

Add to that the unstinting support of his nearest and dearest and you have a template for success. Father Mike introduced his son to mini-rugby as an eight-year-old and has driven him forward ever since. Indeed, Regan Jnr was to all intents and purposes a semi-professional player during the dying days of amateurism, thanks to some sympathetic employment in the family crane hire business.

"My dad was quite a decent wing forward in his day, good enough to get a trial for Bristol, but injuries set in early and anyway, I think he preferred a drink to a hard training session. In the end, he felt he sold himself short in his own rugby career and was determined I should give it my best shot. My parents travel all over the world to watch me play and never miss a match; well, almost never. They didn't fly to West Hartlepool for Bristol's league match this season, but that's probably understandable. They'll certainly be in Dublin and they'll enjoy every minute."

As, indeed, Regan himself plans to enjoy it. Whatever else may have gone wrong for England in their four matches this season, the front row has proved durable, combative, highly skilled and supremely self-assured. The hooker puts much of it down to the influence of his tight head, Jason Leonard, the most-capped English prop of them all.

"Jason will be worth his weight in gold today, with all that passion and craziness flying around. Wiggy [Graham Rowntree, the loose-head prop] and I are growing into our roles together - we're almost cap-for-cap - but Jason has been in there for years and his experience means a lot.

"He's been warning us all week of what we can expect from a pumped-up Irish pack and he'll give it loads in the dressing-room this afternoon too. But on the pitch he'll just go about his business, dropping in the odd word of encouragement here and there. He doesn't need to say much really because he knows we'll follow him wherever he goes."

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