Rugby Union: Dawson ready for battles ahead

England's scrum-half has high-class rivals in his sights.
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MATTHEW DAWSON probably feels he could rule the world, if only he could find his way out of his own front door. Blessed with the full range of scrum-half talents - confidence, resilience, a footballer's instinct, an unfailing eye for the slightest fissure in a defensive rock face - he has yet to take his place in the pantheon of outstanding modern-day No 9s only because his career keeps stalling on him. He is a Ferrari with an ignition problem, a Michael Schumacher in dire need of a set of jump- leads.

He has performed some brilliant deeds in an international shirt, has Dawson.

Newlands '97 remains imprinted on the memory in glorious technicolour; that slow-motion dummy, purchased by an unsuspecting Gary Teichmann for huge money, followed by that oh-so-nonchalant canter to the Springbok line for a classic Lions try. There is also a variety of more recent images from Carisbrook and Eden Park, where the little guy took an unwinnable fight to the All Blacks and refused to leave the battlefield until the last drop of blood had been spilled.

Yet he has never quite managed to nail down his place in the England side; his initial run at the top level, back in 1996, was also his longest, and it stretched to a whole five games. Dropped for Andy Gomarsall (whatever happened to him?) that same November and subsequently overtaken by Austin Healey, he has since been engaged in a swings-and-roundabouts session with Kyran Bracken that shows no obvious sign of reaching a conclusion. Clive Woodward, the England coach, finds it all but impossible to choose between the two and, if truth be told, he regards Bracken's current back problems as something of a godsend.

Dawson has won 15 caps in 35 months, which compares less than favourably with his closest contemporaries. Alessandro Troncon, the Italian he faces at Huddersfield tomorrow, and George Gregan, the Wallaby he is likely to confront at Twickenham a week today, have both collected more than twice as many in a similar timespan; Rob Howley has cruised past him despite conceding a 12-month start; and Joost van der Westhuizen, perhaps the cream of the current crop, is fast closing in on the half-century.

It is with great enthusiasm, then, that Dawson contemplates the next fortnight or so of intense Test activity. Bracken's incapacitation should guarantee the Northampton man an opportunity to measure himself against a high-class posse of spin-passing peers - Troncon, Gregan and Van der Westhuizen in successive weekends - and, perhaps, to take his top-table seat amongst the finest crop of scrum-halves to illuminate the game since Gareth Edwards, Ken Catchpole, Chris Laidlaw, Sid Going and Dawie de Villiers were snapping at each other's heels back in the swinging Sixties.

"I'd say there is a core group of five or six scrum-halves who are there or thereabouts in regard to the number one position, but I wouldn't like to put them in order," said the 26-year-old from Birkenhead, one of those exasperating all-round sportsmen who might just as easily have played first-class cricket or, indeed, professional football. "There's talent all around just at the moment, so it's best to concentrate on the guy in front of you.

This weekend, it happens to be Troncon. I'll sit down in front of the video, pick out his traits and habits, weigh up his strengths and note down his weaknesses. He's less familiar to me than the really big names, the Joosts and the Howleys, but I do the same amount of research whoever the opponent. Preparation is everything."

Well, not quite everything; an international rugby player can possess more detail on more adversaries than the head of MI5 but unless he can tap into the warrior spirit when things get sticky, he is nothing more than a well-informed liability. Back in the summer, when he captained an England tour party so lamentably weak that he effectively faced the best sides in the world with both hands tied behind his back, Dawson earned more stripes than you find on the average zebra. "He has a bigger ticker than Big Ben," said an admiring John Hart, the All Blacks coach, following the second Test in Auckland.

"It wasn't easy out there for obvious reasons, but I felt I came home with a set of foundations on which I could build. Of course we were understrength and over-matched, but from a scrum-half's point of view it could have been a whole lot worse. The forwards turned in some pretty heroic performances in the big games and ensured that I didn't have to play huge chunks of those matches completely on the back foot. As a result, I was able to try a few things and take some positives from the experience.

"Hopefully, I can draw on those positives now that I'm playing behind a full-strength England pack. My first and only aim is to make the jersey my own and as I'm the one in possession just at the moment, I have the perfect opportunity to influence matters. I daren't mess up with so much at stake.

Next year is World Cup year and having missed the boat back in '95, I'm determined to be involved."

His cause will be helped no end if Northampton complete their sudden and somewhat disconcerting transformation from hopeless under-achievers to ruthless trophy-hunters. When Dawson and company finished a distant second to Bracken and his Saracen clubmates at Vicarage Road on the first Sunday of the season, the two Premiership points were not the only items to elude the grasp of the Midlanders. In the space of 80 minutes, Tim Rodber, Paul Grayson and Dawson himself saw their immediate international ambitions seriously undermined. It has taken a sharp upturn in fortunes at Franklins Gardens to return the Saintly trio - and Nick Beal - to the shop window.

"I don't think there is any real doubt that it is terribly difficult to push for an England place if you are struggling at club level," agreed Dawson.

"We were relegated from the old First Division in 1995 and looking back, it was no great surprise that Jack Rowell didn't look too hard in my direction when he put together his World Cup squad. But it works both ways; if you are winning your club matches, the selectors tend to see more of you. You're right there in their faces, as it were. And at the moment, Northampton are having their best run since league rugby started more than a decade ago."

For all that, a rough one tomorrow will leave everything up in the air once again. "They're a dangerous side and there isn't a player in the England squad who doesn't realise what is on the line here. Some traditionalists may still resent the fact that Italy have been added to the Five Nations' Championship but all the evidence shows that they've earned their reward. They're very physical, very direct and desperate to prove a point to those who remain unconvinced of their status.

"It's a real game, this one. We have a lot to lose, both individually and collectively."