Rugby Union: Doors open for Dawson

Tim Glover meets a scrum-half who is the master of taking his chances
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The Independent Online
MATTHEW DAWSON couldn't stop yawning. Somehow it is reassuring to know that in the clinical, almost curfew-conscious world of modern rugby, the new-age professional can still enjoy a night on the town.

In between playing a prominent role in England's victory over Scotland at Murrayfield last Sunday, and preparing for yesterday's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final between Northampton and Saracens, Dawson and Gregor Townsend (club colleague, Scotland adversary and Lions partner) attended a London Business School dinner in the City. Clive Woodward, the England coach, was the speaker and other guests included Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent and Robert Howley and Neil Jenkins.

When Dawson scored a staggering try, literally at one point, in the rout of Wales, he ran half the length of Twickenham, aided and abetted by Howley and Jenkins. The former lost his footing and fell and the latter was left for dead. "We were trying to keep the game moving and taking a tap penalty is part of that," said Dawson, who came on as a replacement for Kyran Bracken. "Suddenly I was into a gap and I just sort of carried on. There was no one to pass to."

There was no one to beat but Jenkins. "It was one on one and I thought I'd take him on," Dawson added. "It was the right option. The line got a little bit wider as I got past Jenks and although I managed to trip over my bootlaces I stumbled on. When I realised I was going to score, I had a beaming smile across my face. I couldn't believe it, to be quite honest. It was nice to show people that I could run and pass as well as kick."

When they met at the dinner the other night, Dawson reminded Jenks of that extraordinary afternoon - cruel treatment for a player without whose laser-like goal-kicking in South Africa, the Lions would never have grounded the Springboks.

It was also in South Africa that Dawson's star rose to such heights it was almost up there with the Southern Cross. His try in the first Test in Cape Town was not only breathtakingly audacious (he employed the Invisible Man as a decoy) but it turned the entire series. It will remain one of the great international touchdowns and the Springboks will never be able to spit out that particular dummy.

"I was very, very lucky to be involved," Dawson said. "When I look back on it I still can't believe it actually happened. It will be the same in 30 years' time." The 25-year-old, who was born in Birkenhead and raised in Marlow, might have been a cricketer (he played wicketkeeper for Buckinghamshire) or a footballer (he played right-back for Chelsea Boys).

England are well blessed in the scrum-half department, so much so that before the Lions tour, Dawson was considered an outsider. Bracken, his arch rival, had kept him out of the England side, Howley was the British No 1 and then there was Austin Healey. There was also the Northampton factor.

Ian McGeechan was coach of the club and the Lions and the Saints provided two stand-offs for the touring party, Townsend and Paul Grayson. "With Geech at the club it didn't matter that much that I wasn't playing for England at that time," Dawson said. "He was watching me. We knew the Lions would take three scrum-halves and I had six of my best games for Northampton." He also captained the side when Tim Rodber was absent.

Bracken, who could not be blamed if the word nepotism entered his vocabulary, had also been playing well. "Geech didn't give me any idea," Dawson said. "I was driving to Selby when I heard the Lions party on the radio. I had to take a deep breath."

When Howley dislocated a shoulder early on in the game against Natal, Dawson took over and the Lions won 42-12. With Townsend at stand-off, somehow McGeechan had his Saints at half-back and Rodber at No 8. "There had been apprehension about any scrum-half filling Howley's shoes," Dawson said. Bracken, who had been holidaying in Tobago, was summoned to South Africa. He didn't get a look-in.

The Lions were trailing 16-12 in the first Test and had taken a pounding when Newlands, the home of South African rugby, was silenced by a former pupil of the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe. With Rodber's attempted sorties from the base of a scrum under pressure, being nullified, the Lions used the codeword "bullet".

"To break things up, the call was for me to go and I managed to get round Ruben Kruger which was the main bit. The rest of the South African team fell for my schoolboy dummy. I looked for some support inside and there was no one there. It was probably not meant to be a dummy but all of a sudden everyone had paused and I was five yards clear. I was able to stroll into the corner. I remember thinking I'd got away with it. I dummied to nobody. It was only afterwards that I realised what a massive occasion the whole thing was. It was all very emotional."

On his return, Dawson, who had scored another try in the final Test at Ellis Park, was overshadowed by Bracken in a league game and had to bite the bullet when England turned to the Saracens scrum-half. Bracken missed the match against Scotland last week because of injury and Dawson once again took full advantage, scoring a try under the posts.

"It's swings and roundabouts," Dawson said. "Kyran and I will probably be fighting each other forever."