Rugby Union: England's prop of ages cuts loose: Tim Glover talks to the tight head hookers love to hate but who finds himself having to prove points to the selectors

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN ENGLAND'S appliance of a scientific approach to fitter and faster rugby, some of the older generation are finding that loyalty is not a consideration that colours the thinking of the selectors. When manager Geoff Cooke makes changes, his use of the knife is ruthless.

Jeff Probyn and Dean Richards may be Grand Slam stalwarts, but both have suffered this season. It may or may not be coincidence that neither of them are the most enthusiastic of trainers. 'I enjoy playing and I get fit through that,' Probyn said. He had won 33 caps when he was omitted for the games against Canada at Wembley and South Africa at Twickenham, England preferring the younger man, Victor Ubogu, at tight- head prop.

The England management broke the news to Probyn by telling him: 'You're on the bench'. 'Of course I was disappointed,' Probyn said, 'but it didn't come as a shock. At the start of the season they've no idea how I'm playing. Will Carling wanted a word but what can you say? There's no point in talking it over. If it was a young player who was dropped then it would be worth explaining a few things.'

Probyn is 36. Cooke said there is little chance of selection in future for specialist props who are unable to contribute fully in the loose. Probyn, who is nothing if not a specialist, does not accept that that comment was directed at him. 'I have scored four tries in an England shirt and that is the most scored by any prop. You have to be flexible and you have to be able to perform a number of functions. I think I contribute in the loose.'

He has been doing so for Wasps and London and he did so again in front of the England management when he scored a try for the Barbarians against Australia at Twickenham last month. The applause must still be ringing in his ears. 'I showed that I'm still capable of playing at that level,' he said. 'My skills have not deteriorated in any way, shape or form.'

Probyn has developed an understanding with Brian Moore and Jason Leonard, the young Harlequins loose head who succeeded that other Wasps veteran Paul Rendall. 'When Jason came in he wasn't a better prop than Paul but he has filled the breech admirably,' Probyn said. 'I've been very fortunate in having a lock like Wade Dooley behind me. There are very few props who will say that they're a better player than so and so. That's the front- row tradition. You have your battles and afterwards there's mutual respect.'

A lot of it, not surprisingly, between Probyn and Rendall. Before teaming up at Wasps they locked horns when Probyn was at Richmond. 'He's the best loose head I've ever played against,' is Probyn's judgement, 'and I'm not saying that because he's a friend of mine. One of the tight head's jobs is to disrupt the hooker's ball. You could put pressure on Paul but you could never get near his hooker.'

Rendall, who spent three weeks rooming with Probyn during the World Cup, says of him: 'He's a right awkward bastard. Because of that everybody's punched him at one time. Most of the hookers don't like him. He bores straight into them. He takes a lot of stick up front but he seems to shrug it off. His technique is so good he doesn't spend a lot of energy scrummaging. He's got little shoulders and he's hard to get hold of. Jeff's pretty mobile, he's good at clearing up at the line-out and he can hold or wheel a scrum. I remember Ondarts punching him once as if to say welcome to Paris. It had no effect. He's a tough cookie all right.'

Probyn, an East Ender, began playing rugby at primary school in Shoreditch and at the London Nautical School. He did not join the Merchant Navy but the family furniture firm, Probros, which specialises in making bookcases. 'I was one of those short fat boys so I always played in the front row.' Two people in particular helped his career, Nick Brendt, when Probyn played for Old Albanians, and Denis Bedford, at Streatham and Croydon.

'Nick introduced me to club rugby and kept me going when so many other people stopped playing for one reason or another.' Latterly, Brendt, a circuit court judge, has introduced Probyn to the pleasures of sailing. At Streatham and Croydon, Bedford told him that as a loose head he would not get beyond club level but as a tight head he was the best he had ever seen. Probyn concentrated on that position and, after four years with Richmond, joined Wasps and a formidable front row in 1984. He went to Australia with the World Cup squad in 1987 but did not play and it was not until the following year that he won his first cap. 'It's been a long hard struggle,' Probyn said.

One son plays prop and captains the school team, but another has stopped playing. 'He was 5ft 3in but has grown to 6ft 1in and they still insisted he played prop,' Probyn said. 'There is pressure in being the son of an international forward.'

Probyn, who will spend the New Year at England's training camp in Lanzarote, has no intention of retiring. 'You'd have to be stupid if you didn't expect the selectors to try other people, especially with the new laws. It doesn't mean they're not going to pick me again. This is early season stuff. The Five Nations is different.'

It is a view shared by Rendall. 'If England want to go for a third Slam they can't leave Probyn out. They must have a strong platform. I thought Ubogu was found wanting against South Africa. He's got to work on his technique and he's got to be brought along slowly. Probyn would walk into anyone's team, including the British Lions.'

(Photograph omitted)

Alan Watkins' rugby column will resume on 12 January