For much of his outstanding career as a multi-talented school sportsman, Tony Diprose put swimming above rugby in his list of priorities. It was time well spent, clearly; had it not been for those years as a freestyle specialist of considerable standing, he might easily have drowned in a sea of retreating English studs during last Saturday's shambolic draw against the Wallabies at Twickenham.
Behind a front five scrummaging unit worth its salt, the 25-year-old Saracen invariably justifies his reputation as the most intelligent footballing No 8 produced by England in a generation. Behind a front five in reverse, however, he loses at least some of his lustre. Diprose is not afraid of getting his hands dirty, but 80 minutes of subterranean scrabbling are 80 minutes wasted. You might just as well employ Rembrandt to paint your skirting board.
Tomorrow, England will need their back-row artist to produce something approaching a masterpiece as they go toe to toe with a genuinely great All Black side lavishly equipped with genuinely great players in influential positions. One of those positions is No 8, where Zinzan Brooke has been setting new standards ever since Wayne Shelford was dumped prematurely seven years ago. Brooke is the nearest thing the Englishman has to a contemporary role model and the contest between the two should be one for the connoisseur.
Diprose readily acknowledges his debt to the formidable Maori he knows he must tame if England are to stand the proverbial cat's hope in hell of surviving the fires of Old Trafford. "Zinny would be the number one in my book. He has the lot: individuality, vision and skill, but also the strength and physical power to do it in the hard yards. I remember Shelford, too - his control and aggression made an impact on me - and for any Englishman, Dean Richards has to be up there with the best. But Zinzan? Some player, eh?"
A thankless task, then? Perhaps, given the indisputable fact that Diprose is in the Test rugby's equivalent of the reception class while Brooke is in the sixth form, swaggering around with a head boy's badge pinned to his lapel. Yet Diprose is mature beyond his years, his natural level-headedness complemented by the time he has just spent rubbing shoulders with three of Brooke's fellow inhabitants of the union pantheon: Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella and, crucially, Francois Pienaar, South Africa's 1995 World Cup-winning captain.
Not only does Diprose play alongside that esteemed trio at Saracens, he captains them, and it would be difficult to imagine a richer, more productive learning environment. "It's a daunting thing to lead a side containing players of their talent and experience," he admits. "Francois' presence is especially intimidating, perhaps because he's alongside me in the forwards while Michael and Philippe are a little more isolated in the positional sense. But those are massive shoulders to lean on and the amount of help I receive is almost impossible to quantify.
"Francois is an unbelievably competitive rugby figure and he's made an outstanding impression. Obviously, I tend to go with what he and the others say - I'm hardly likely to start telling them how to play the game - but just being there with them has improved my focus and that of the whole team. We've changed from a side that had vague hopes of being good to one that is very definitely getting there."
If Diprose can draw on the unplumbable depths of pure passion that Pienaar habitually brings to a game, he may well become the focal point of Clive Woodward's New England philosophy. A No 8 of the very highest order requires the soft hands of the craftsman and the far-seeing eyes of the visionary and Diprose is blessed with both sets of equipment. But does he possess the third indispensible element? The warrior's soul?
"I'd like to think the aggression is there and while I accept that I don't make as many big hits as perhaps I should, I rarely miss tackles; certainly, I'm very hard on myself when I allow one to slip away. The aggression thing is an aspect I'm concentrating on because I'm aware that I don't show it to the extent that some other No 8s do, but working with someone like Francois will inevitably bring it out of me. He's just so good at ramming the basics into back-row players. It's only when you fail to carry out those basics - win the ball, ruck the ball, keep the ball - that rugby, a simple enough game, becomes complicated."
So how frustrating did Diprose find last weekend's Test with Australia, a Test in which England conspicuously failed to perform the basics of ball-winning at scrum after disorganised scrum? "It made life more difficult than it might have been," he agrees. "But there are two points that have to be made. Firstly, the scrum is an eight-man commitment, not a three- man or a five-man business. It's full-on for each and every forward; the props need the flankers, the second rows need the No 8. We're in it together and we should be doing it together.
"Secondly, we have to learn to adapt more quickly when things aren't going to plan. I was disappointed not to get more ball in my hands but we should be able to play things off the cuff. We over-committed ourselves to the rucks and that meant that when Mike Catt, for instance needed runners to continue an attack, they weren't there. Still, it was the first coming together of a new team and we got a draw."
A draw against the All Blacks tomorrow would be akin to a 50-point victory over anyone else. It is asking a huge amount of Diprose and his fellow rank outsiders but, just perhaps, it will be a case of cometh the stadium, cometh the man. After all, Old Trafford knows a footballer when it sees one.Reuse content