Rugby Union: Double life of an officer and a hard man: Five Nations' Championship: Lt Rodber may soon have to choose between his Army career and international rugby. Steve Bale reports
Saturday 19 February 1994
But quit what? Big-time rugby? Probably, but perhaps only temporarily. The Army? Well, maybe. The awkward reality is that his
career in the oldest unamalgamated infantry regiment is effectively on hold until after next year's World Cup and then his rugby career must go on hold instead.
Decisions, decisions. Would that they were as obvious for Rodber as the England selectors evidently found it to recall him to the back row, sight-unseen, for this afternoon's game against Ireland at Twickenham as soon as he had
recovered from the hamstring
injury that put him out of the narrow squeak in Scotland a fortnight ago.
He perforce leads a double life, dividing his time between Catterick Camp in North Yorkshire and
Northampton, where he has lately become club captain after the sudden retirement of John Olver. 'During the rugby season the Army give me a job that is very, very flexible within the battalion, which
enables me to have the time off I need,' Rodber said.
'Because they are so far apart - Catterick is a three-hour drive - I tend to be up there for a few days at a time and then in Northampton for a few days rather than forever going back and forth; otherwise I'd be dead. The Army is allowing me to play my sport, as they have done with people like Kriss Akabusi and others, in the knowledge that ultimately I'll have to do all the exams and the courses I'm not doing now.'
Rodber did not plan it like this. He had been destined for the Army from his teenage years, an Army scholar at Churcher's College in Petersfield, Hampshire, and sponsored by the Army while on a degree course in human biology at Oxford Polytechnic. He initially signed on for five years; he has completed two.
Indeed, two years ago Rodber would have had every intention of re-signing when his five years were up. Now he is not so sure, his only certainty being that he is unwilling to commit himself. 'It's not a problem at the moment because the Army is flexible. But they are waiting for me to say something to them and I will have to start making some career decisions in the end.
'It's a delicate situation. I have to present a good image and be careful what I say to the press, but I've been surprised that the Army has not made more use of me for its own PR. What I will say is that at the five-year point I have to make a decision anyway whether to stay in or go. It's the sort of decision anyone has to make at that stage of his career, the mid- 20s career crisis everyone goes through, and June / July next year will be a crucial time for me.'
Remembering that by then - immediately after the World Cup - he will be 25, and even after the Army's full five years'-worth he will be only 27, there is more than a suspicion that his eventual career path might well lead out of uniform and into civilian life. 'It will depend on whether I feel by then that I've achieved everything I want to achieve in rugby,' Rodber said.
'The Army isn't putting me
under any pressure to do anything but it's like any employer who would require you to do certain things and in order to do them you have to get rid of certain other things. I didn't join the Army for an easy ride because I was playing rugby. I was already destined for a lifetime in the Army when all of a sudden along came England.'
England first came along when he made the 1990 tour of Argentina which, though he was one of few younger players to come home with reputation unimpaired, persuaded him he was not yet ready for international rugby. The physical and mental maturing this induced in him eventually won him his cap at No 8 - in preference to Dean Richards - in the first post-World Cup international of 1992.
Richards replaced him for the last 20 minutes at Murrayfield and after the following match, which brought a record score against
Ireland, the Leicester titan was
restored and Rodber excluded for a long two years, during which time Ben Clarke overtook him in selectorial esteem by the next time Richards was dropped, last season.
Rodber had not done himself justice in 1992, mainly because he was at the start of seven months of officer training the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. This is a
notoriously tough regime and, as he was worn out from spending half his time in between internationals yomping across the Brecon Beacons, his rugby was bound to suffer.
Rodber had also found it hard to assimilate with battle-hardened players who had done a Grand Slam the previous season and were in the process of doing another. 'I think I got in because after the World Cup they were looking for alternatives and it was undoubtedly an eye- opener for me,' he said.
'You learn so much by being dropped and then having to sit on the bench for seven games. You really begin to understand how you have to play to achieve things at the top level. When Ben was capped, he was playing well and I wasn't and I began to wonder if I would ever be picked again.'
These experiences have converted Rodber into 'the eternal pessimist'. Hence his refusal to believe that his return to the squad after the recent Scotland game inevitably meant a
return to the team, even though the comeback performance he gave in the defeat of New Zealand in
November, an outstanding blend of abrasion and ball skill, would for sure have kept him in the team at Murrayfield had he been fit. And even though, with Clarke and Richards injured, Rodber's three caps make him the senior England back- row forward alongside Neil Back (one cap) and Steve Ojomoh (none).
'I was really pleased with my form early in the season and through the All Black tour up to Christmas. I felt that was the best I've played in my career,' he said. 'Since Christmas the injuries have been a problem, but the other side of that is that I've trained harder than I've ever done and I feel as fit and strong as I've ever done.
'My feeling was that I was put back in the squad simply because I had been in it in the first place, and I wasn't under any false impression that I was going to play against Ireland. And unless and until I play in the next three games I will not regard myself as an established member of the England team.' This is becoming modesty from a coming man.
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