Rugby Union: Cool Stimpson knows the score

Chris Hewett encounters the new England full-back, a rugby colossus with a match-winning kicking boot
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The Independent Online
He is built like the proverbial tank - 16 stones plus, six feet plenty. And if England have ever fielded a more physically imposing specimen as their last line of defence, no one can remember his name. All of which suggests that in choosing Tim Stimpson as his successor to Mike Catt at full-back, Jack Rowell has traded in a Ferrari and bought himself a tow-truck.

Indeed, you can easily imagine a touchline conversation at Silcoates School in Wakefield, from where Stimpson won caps at Under-16 and Under- 18 level. "Which position does young Tim play?" asks an interested spectator. "Any position he damned well likes," replies the teacher.

Appearances can be deceptive, however. The reality is that Stimpson may well be the most exciting back to line up for his country since Jeremy Guscott exploded on to the international scene seven years ago. Certainly, his eye-catching running from deep bears the stamp of Australia's Matt Burke, his tackling brings back fond memories of the immortal JPR and he has the simple but priceless gift of making things happen a la Gavin Hastings. Oh, and he kicks goals from half-way into the bargain. Too good to be true? We will find out when he wins his first cap against Italy at Twickenham this afternoon.

Early indications suggest that the 23-year-old Liverpudlian - "I've lived in Wakefield since I was six months old but no, I'm not a true Yorkshireman" - is the most level-headed England full-back of recent times, in addition to being the biggest. That is no small claim, given that as recently as 1992, Jon Webb was playing with such dispassionate, almost academic detachment from the pressures of top-level rugby that a section of the Bath crowd nicknamed him "Captain Sensible".

Yet Stimpson is every bit as self-possessed. "I am pretty excited and really quite nervous, too, because this is a wonderful opportunity for me and one I don't want to waste. But I've been part of the England set up right the way through from Under-16 level and I've been working towards this for so long that there is no reason for me to treat it as anything other than another stage in my development as a player."

Cool indeed, but Stimpson is no automaton. He lists his major influences as Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco and David Campese - not exactly paid up members of the rugby-by-numbers brigade - and no one who saw him captain West Hartlepool with startling verve and imagination last year was left in any doubt that a special talent was beginning to emerge.

"I really enjoyed my time at West; it was a season full of challenges, because we didn't have the strongest of sides and when I was given the captaincy midway through the league programme, I tried to take some positive things from the responsibility. My move to Newcastle this season had little to do with money in the personal sense but everything to do with money in the wider sense, because it was obvious that by putting things on a fully professional footing they were creating a situation whereby players could develop fully.

"Being professional does not necessarily mean adopting a totally hard outlook on everything you do, but it does allow you to focus squarely on your goals. When I think that Rob Andrew used to drive three or four hours just to get in an extra goal-kicking session and still had to think about a full-time career, I'm relieved that I'm not trying to operate under such intense pressure."

Stimpson gave up his job as a training officer with ICI on joining Newcastle - he had worked with the company since graduating from Durham University - and he has no regrets. "Looking back at someone like Jon Webb, who was combining an England rugby career with life as a surgeon, I don't see how anyone can hope to balance such demands in the professional era. My employers were tremendously supportive towards me but I felt I'd come to a natural break.

"That said, rugby is only a game and I don't want to lose sight of that. I recognise the importance of keeping things in perspective - my friends help me do that - but with a degree and a year's work experience behind me I feel I can spend at least some time trying to squeeze the most from my sport before going back into the world of work."

Much has been made of the fact that, despite his mule-like right boot, Stimpson has been kept away from the kicking duties at Newcastle. Andrew being the boss man at Kingston Park, he probably has little say in the matter, but does the thought that he might get the call this afternoon set the nerve ends jangling?

"Not really. I've worked solidly with Rob on my kicking in training - in fact, we practice so much that my range and technique are coming on all the time. I recognise that I need to do more in a match situation and Rob realises that too, but while I'm willing to kick for England if asked, I am just as happy to concentrate on being a half-decent full-back."

That should come as a relief to another Durham University type, Phil de Glanville. Last weekend, the new England captain felt unable to burden Catt with a wickedly difficult 45-metre match-saving penalty against Cardiff in the European Cup quarter-final and took all manner of stick for so deciding. "I know just how he feels," Stimpson says.

"I can remember playing against Bristol University in the semi-final of the UAU Cup back in 1993 and running a penalty in the last minute. I thought we were four points behind when in reality we were only adrift by two; I was tackled at the corner flag and we went out of the competition one step short of Twickenham. Had I kicked for goal, we would probably have won. I wasn't too popular, but I learned a valuable lesson: always make sure you know the score."