Rugby Union: Charge of the injured Tiger

Stung by Woodward's rejection, Stimpson has been reborn as Leicester's running man

TIM STIMPSON knows all too well how Andy Cole feels. Both players have been in the club form of their lives for the past 18 months, both are scoring for fun, and yet neither can get a game for their country.

At least the Manchester United striker is included in the squad these days, an honour which has lately been denied to the Leicester full-back - most recently when he failed to be named as one of England's 30 players for the World Cup. Having been a regular member of the international set- up for three years, Stimpson was "shell-shocked" when he received the "thanks but no thanks" e-mail from Clive Woodward. The rejection was hard to bear, but Stimpson has drawn comfort from the fact that, while many of the players who were on World Cup duty have returned physically and mentally drained, he has been enjoying the season of his life.

His club manager, a man who knows a thing or two about good players and what it takes to perform at the highest level, is in no doubt that Stimpson deserves his place in the England team. "If you look at Tim's contributions this season, he's got to be a prime candidate for player of the season," said Dean Richards. "I still don't understand why he was left out the World Cup squad when England were crying out for a 15 who had power, pace, poise and could kick. I think he's as good a full-back as there is out there."

Stimpson won't go that far, but he has unashamedly set his sights on a return to the national fold and believes that, as long as he can maintain his good domestic and European form - starting tonight in the Premiership match against Saracens at Vicarage Road - he has every chance of achieving that goal. "Sure," said Stimpson at the Tigers' training ground. "I have ability in rugby, I've proved that week-in, week-out with Leicester. I know I can perform well for whichever side I play in."

Stimpson's international rise and fall is a mirror image of his club career. After graduating from Durham University, he first came to prominence as the captain, at just 22, of the successful West Hartlepool team of the early Nineties who, under the shrewd guidance of Barry Taylor, achieved improbable results. His performances led Rob Andrew - then backed by Sir John Hall's millions - to persuade Stimpson to join his Newcastle revolution. It was a dream move and a natural progression for a player who had worn the No 15 jersey for both his country, during the Five Nations, and the Lions, on their tour to South Africa, in the first six months of 1997. But Stimpson quickly fell out of favour with Andrew and never regained his place in the team. He spent six months in the cold and was no more than an onlooker as his team-mates collected the Premiership title in the summer of 1998.

"I passed the champagne on that day," Stimpson, who is still only 26, recalled. "I felt like an outsider so I'm just delighted I've been able to resurrect my career at Leicester. The fact is that if you have confidence in yourself, then you will perform to the utmost of your ability. But that is providing you are given the opportunity to express yourself. Not playing regularly at club level meant I wasn't able to develop any form, so I lost confidence. I'm over that now; I've had two good seasons and I'm back to being a free-spirited and confident player."

So can his good run of form, since joining Leicester 18 months ago, be solely attributed to a more positive playing environment? "Yes. It's a great bonus for me to know that all the people around, not just the manager and the coaches but the players, too, are all very supportive of me. We're all pulling towards the same goal and giving each other the confidence to have a go. Because that's the secret to any team success: letting all those talents and abilities on to the pitch and not being afraid to try things. As a team, we're constantly reminded of our duties, but as individuals we're encouraged to express ourselves. Strany [Joel Stransky, the backs' coach] always tells us to have a go. He'll never criticise us for trying something."

Few ever questioned Stimpson's skills at taking on opponents and running with the ball. What has always remained in doubt, however, is his ability, especially as a full-back, to make decisions on his feet and adapt to the changes which can often affect a match. Quick thinking, or the lack of it, has long been a criticism of the English game. As the former France and Saracens fly-half, Alain Penaud, said after his Toulouse team demolished Swansea last weekend: "There are some good players in Britain, but they seem to have a problem thinking about the game once the referee has blown his first whistle. I think French players are able to think on their feet more. If one plan fails, another is put into action."

British teams can win games by adopting a tight and pragmatic style of play, but they seem incapable of going into a match with one game plan and coming out of it having radically altered their strategy. How many drop-goals were England going to let Jannie de Beer kick before changing their tactics?

The charge is severe, yet Stimpson makes no attempt to hide. "We have a lot of talented players but we all could play better - do more with the ball and try things more often. We do get a little bit conservative in the way we use it. But, as the game becomes better organised defensively, we're going to be forced to go backwards. We'll have to say: 'Look, here's the ball; it's first phase, how do we break the defence down and score tries?' We'll all have to be more daring; less predictable."

Tonight's top-of-the-table league match at Saracens, under floodlights and the watchful eyes of the England coach, gives Stimpson the ideal chance to step out of his own shadow and move up the pecking order. But adding to his 11 caps won't be easy. Not only is he at present third choice behind Matt Perry and Nick Beal, but Woodward tends to be loyal to his chosen players.

Stimpson remains positive, though, and says he is relishing the challenge. "If I play well and gain success with Leicester, then I'll get another chance. I have the ability and a burning desire to be a part of the England team again. During the World Cup, I kept thinking, 'God, I wish I was there'. It was inspiring to look at our players and know there was no reason why I couldn't be there myself. I just have to make sure I'm picked next time."

Stimpson can do no more than play well for his club. As Andy Cole has found, however, even that may not be enough to rekindle England's interest.

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