Rugby Union: Five Nation Countdown / Bayfield emerges as the backbone o f new England

Hugh Bateson on the rebirth of a world-class player Crucial roles for England's tower of strength and the Welsh points machine
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The Independent Online
It seems faintly perverse , but for all that at 6ft 10in and 19st he is the very prototype of the modern rugby forward, Martin Bayfield is beginning to sound like something of a throwback.

A word not often heard in these high-pressure days passes his lips as often - and smoothly - as the line-out ball he presents time after time on the international field. On club rugby: "I'm enjoying it more than ever." On internationals: "I've enjoyed those that I have played." On England's new style: "I enjoy it." Even, good grief, on training: "Finding the time's difficult, but I enjoy it."

Mind you, even Bayfield would not argue that everyone should travel the same journey he has to reach this rare state of grace, which will be put to a fearsome test tomorrow down Dublin's fair Lansdowne Road.

It started two Junes ago on the Lions' tour to New Zealand, the week before the first Test, when Bayfield, emerging as a lock of world class, made just one of countless spectacular leaps in the line-out. But just as he reached full flight, his legs were scythed from under him and he fell, base over elongated tip, on to his neck and shoulder and lay ominously immobile amid frantic paramedic activity. Fears of a serious spinal injury were immediately raised, fell again as Bayfield made enough of a recovery to play in the first Test seven days later, and rose again with worrying bouts of numbness and pins and needles at the start of the domestic season in England.

"I played two league games and I realised that there was something horrendously wrong," he said. "I had it diagnosed as a ruptured disc in my neck, had all the treatment and was desperate to get back playing again. In January I played a few games and found myself back in the England team.

"I had a poor game against Scotland, and an even poorer game against Ireland. I knew straight after that that I wasn't going to survive through to the French game, because I just wasn't fit enough. I could run round an athletics track OK, but . . ."

The axe duly fell, but not to terminal effect. In fact, Bayfield even managed to convert the experience into a liberating one. "Being dropped made me change my outlook on the game and what I was trying to do. I became much more relaxed about it.

"Ever since I got picked for my first Five Nations game in 1992, it's always been `will I make it for the next game' and it does start to prey on you a little. But now I am concentrating more on my training and what I want to achieve. I have been enjoying my club rugby, which has been going personally quite well, and I have enjoyed the internationals I have played. I feel as though I am contributing a lot more than I did previously."

Obviously this starts at the line-out, where he and his colleague, Johnson, are expected to be England's primary providers of that most treasured item in international rugby, the ball. And Bayfield knows exactly what to expect in the maelstrom tomorrow.

"One of us will be targeted by the Irish forwards for special attention, hopefully leaving the other guy free to win the ball."

Ask him what actually happens in a line-out, though, and he is slightly less forthcoming - trade secrets need to be maintained of course. "I haven't a clue," he said blithely. "It's a nightmare. It's just a question of teamwork, being precise about things and a lot of cheating." Of course, that is something that PC Bayfield - following Dooley, Richards and Ackford in the recent England tradition of policemen forwards - would never indulge in.

Now Bayfield wants to go beyond winning the ball, although he is still working hard on doing ever more of that, and have some say in what happens to it afterwards - which England are also quite keen on with their new, expansive style.

Not that Bayfield sees it as revolutionary, just a logical evolution, and speaking in a tiny room often used for a more sinister type of interview at the Bedford police station where he works as a community officer, he produces his evidence. "The way that we are trying to play is the ultimate target of an England team. If we are allowed to play that way against Ireland, France, Wales or Scotland, then we will play it. Likewise, if we are allowed to play that type of game in the World Cup, then we will p lay it. However you might come across a team - especially one like Ireland - who won't let you, so you have to resort to what people call a Five Nations style.

"When South Africa played us in the second Test in the summer they played Five Nations rugby. It was hard forward play, grinding on, putting the high ball up, chasing on, and they broke us. Once they had done that, then out came all the skills. So I think it's wrong to say there's a Five Nations style, there's so many different ways of playing the game. What we are doing now is making sure that England can play every type of game."

They may well need to tomorrow, for Bayfield is impressed by the Irish, especially their front row - "they ripped the South Africans apart in the Barbarians game" - and Neil Francis - "always been one of the best in the world."

Bayfield even manages to make that sound a reason to be cheerful. After all, if England can win by playing the way they are trying to, it will be fun for one at least. "I enjoy running about the pitch - you should see the look on a back's face when he realises it's me he's got to pass to."