Rugby Union: Brutal baptism for a young centre turned inside out

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The Independent Online
In the land of hymns and arias, an English choirboy was thrust into an unforgiving conflict and found it an unholy experience. At 18, turned only 19 today, Mathew Tait still possesses the innocent, wide- eyed features of a boy who could have sung his heart out in surplice and cassock this morning.

His Newcastle team-mate Jamie Noon, deployed alongside him yesterday, says that Tait loves the sound of running water. It relaxes him. Yesterday, the only waters he experienced were that of a baptism... by the devil.

The Beelzebub concerned was Gavin Henson, who ultimately turned this ugly, edgy contest Wales' way with a penalty in the closing minutes. Earlier he had appointed himself young Tait's nemesis.

From the moment the Newcastle Falcons centre was picked up bodily by his Wales counterpart - as though he had wandered innocently into a judo contest - and was unceremoniously hurled to the turf a few minutes into this encounter, his international education was brutally under way. It was a harsh experience. Just in case he had not been attentive in class, for good measure the inspirational Henson repeated the act early in the second half.

The youngest debutant since Jonny Wilkinson against Ireland in 1998 is the son of a Yorkshire mother and a Scottish father. He elected for the rose rather than the thistle, but by last night may have reflected that an afternoon in Paris with Scotland may have been more preferable to this introduction.

But was the England coach, Andy Robinson, correct to thrust this teenager into a fray of this nature? How will Tait respond to the outcome - assuming he ever wins the chance again? A year ago, let's not forget, this young man was playing for Barnard Castle School, his loftiest ambitions being merely to break into Newcastle's Premiership team. Here, no amount of muscle tone could disguise his evident callow youth; no amount of apparent early composure could conceal an absence of international presence - for all Robinson's faith in a player whom he commended during the week for work ethic, reading of the game, and his pace.

Tait had much in common with Wilkinson, concluded the England coach. Oh, that he'd had the opportunity to do so on a miserable evening for England before the player was replaced on the hour by another young man with rich potential, Olly Barkley.

In fairness, there were hints of the prowess that had so impressed Robinson when he brought one Henson charge to halt, and he occasionally linked well with Noon and Josh Lewsey. But, in truth, this was not an evening which any of the backs will recall with pride. Indeed, Tait's fate reflected England's first half during which a revived Wales, displaying some of that bravado of old, frequently lived up to the pre-match hyperbole, although their failure to capitalise on some fluid running could have cost them dear later on.

With the stadium roof closed, inducing a curious atmosphere of claustrophobia, the place was awash with optimism once again. Henson had entered into the spirit of the pre-match verbal sparring by announcing that this was "our best chance" of beating England for years. This was the impeccably groomed Ospreys inside centre - surely as much a product of a style consultant as a coach - whom the Wales captain, Gareth Thomas, had opined beforehand "is going to be one of the stars in world rugby".

We've been here before and found that the pressure of such anticipation has told on Wales. Since the move from the Arms Park, the fervently chorused nationalism in the prelude to a game has sounded decidedly off-key 80 minutes later. This time, though, Mike Ruddock's men responded.

Wales hoped that this was not so much about three tenors as three tentative England threequarters: Tait, Noon, a player whose own international career is still in its infancy; and the Sale Shark Charlie Hodgson, still attempting, after 15 caps, to escape that illusion of being merely a Jonny junior.

The return of Matt Dawson, the World Cup final and Wasps scrum-half, was a question of sporting necessity, you could say, considering that England are currently denied the midfield prowess of Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood. Dawson's early deft kicking suggested he might provide the stimulus for success, but gradually his influence waned, and he was replaced, injured, in the second half. In reality, there was a lack of the kind of impetus within the England team that in years past would have been provided by Martin Johnson.

Before kick-off Tait had been offered words of encouragement from Noon and his captain, Jason Robinson. Then he thumped himself on opposite shoulders. He appeared composed. He would need to be because for 10 minutes Wales were Herculean in their approach. Noon appeared nervy, and errors developed in his game, including the penalty he conceded, which was not converted. With no opportunity to display his pace, Tait could only man the barricades.

The second half was too edgy to be a classic, but mesmerising for all that. In the end, Henson kicked the penalty Wales' overall play just merited. Young Tait, by now a spectator, must have wondered just what he had walked into. And whether he had walked straight out again.

Still, only France next...

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