Rugby Union / Five Nations' Focus: England's rocker lines up new hits: Paul Hayward on the venerated England flanker hewn from stone aiming to carve out a final season of monumental performances

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RESPECT Peter Winterbottom? Of course we do, the French would say, just like everybody else in the rugby-playing world. But then when the tape recorder was off you could expect to hear a more muffled and pained admission about their feelings towards England's most-capped forward: Yeah, and we're sick of the sight of him as well.

For most of the last 11 years the French have been crashing into the six-foot bollard of Winterbottom's tackling stance or squaring up to his ball-carrying charges downfield. A Eurobond dealer he may be, but forming Euro-bonds will be the last thought in Winterbottom's mind when he carries his adversary-crushing talents into competition with France for the last time at Twickenham this afternoon.

'The man's carved out of stone,' Dick Best, the England coach, said and this is among the least effusive things Winterbottom's admirers say of him as he enters his final season of international rugby. When the history of England's ascent to two Grand Slams - and possibly three - is compiled in more objective times, Winterbottom will again be depicted in a quarryman's terms as a statuesque figure at the centre of the team's revival.

'He's developed into one of the all-time greats,' Roger Uttley, Best's predecessor, said when asked to encapsulate Winterbottom's status. Try, if you like, to find anybody to contradict that assessment, but only if you have a year or two to waste prodding the man's allies and opponents for some countervailing testimony.

For the player himself, talk of him being a talisman of England's fortunes is simply so much more sports babble of the type he prefers not to indulge in.

So from where do they grow, these hagiographies, these paeans to a veteran, who, if some of the rumours are to be believed, faces retribution from the French today for alleged improprieties in Paris 15 months ago? The answers, in no particular order, are his toughness, his longevity, his athleticism, his ferocity, and a personal quality that few are able to articulate but seemingly all defer to.

Again, here, Best is the most knowledgable confidant. 'I coached Harlequins for 10 years and Peter was captain for two of those,' Best said. 'He is the most respected man I've seen involved with England and involved with Harlequins, which at that time contained 11 or 12 internationals. He didn't say a lot, but when he did speak up everybody listened. Even the great Carlings and Moores of this world. When 'Winters' talks, everybody else shuts up.

'What's he like? He likes his own space. He's a very personal bloke. At times he can be the most charming, wonderful guy and at other times he'll ignore people because that's the way he wants to be, and people'll say: 'Well, that's just Winters for you.'

'He's a good man. He'll do anything for you if you know him and he trusts you. He's been let down by a lot of people over the years, I think, so he's just very cautious. But people say he's thick and he's monosyllabic. Well, he's a long way from that.

'He's a highly intelligent bloke. He has travelled the world all his life playing rugby, and yet he's gone straight from that into Eurobond dealing, so he's nobody's fool. He's a sharp operator. He knows what's going on in the world.'

Goodness. At this rate we could be talking Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But sitting before Winterbottom on his dealing floor in the City of London it is better to stick to rugby, lest you embarrass him with all the stacked compliments, the unceasing veneration that has established him as arguably the most acclaimed player in world rugby. It is better to stick to tackling.

Winterbottom is not a leviathan, as he freely admits, but his chest does look as if a coal lorry has unloaded its contents into his dealer's shirt (plain white, not striped), and you would not fancy being placed in a headlock by those arms. He is 32, 6ft, 14st 10lb and has a 44-inch chest. 'I'm not that big,' he said. 'If you look at Willie Offahengaue, he'd be twice the size of me.'

Sure, but just recall some of the things Winterbottom does with that seemingly armour-plated torso. Rightly or wrongly, people talk about 'hits' in rugby these days, and when they talk about hits they talk about Winterbottom, though when he was asked whether England forwards ever discussed the game in these terms he said: 'Nah . . . not really.'

Winterbottom likes running to stay fit but seldom trains on his upper-body strength and says his 'diet is appalling'. He has a reputation for being among the least zealous exercisers on the England team, though Best insists, perhaps slightly teasingly: 'He is the furthest thing from Corinthian sport going. He's a dedicated athlete. You go round to his flat and he's hardly ever in. You catch him coming out of the running track at about 10 o'clock with a pizza. He lives down the running track these days.'

Sometimes you wonder how Winterbottom can keep getting up from all those tackles. The impact. The attrition. His age. 'You've got to tackle aggressively, but what makes a good tackle is timing,' he said. But what about pain? 'In my position you're there to make tackles. You can't afford to shirk away from them and you can't afford to miss any.'

'There aren't many people who tackle like him,' Best said. 'I think it's timing and I think it's getting your body in the right position before contact.

'When you see him make the big tackles he's in a perfect position and that requires a lot of things like fitness and plenty of skill. When people break tackles it's because they beat players who are out of position.

'It's something he (Winterbottom) has always had. It's amazing to have a bloke play international rugby like that for 10 years and more.'

Winterbottom is willing to be pressed on the subject of his durability, though there are times when he appears mystified by the interest, as if to say 'why shouldn't I keep flattening people?' But the psychological importance of self- assertion in those often frenzied first 10 minutes clearly plays in his rugby mind: 'First scrum, first tackle, first line-out, all that sort of thing. You look to get the opposition on the back foot.'

And do not think that he steams into oncoming players, gets up and forgets all about it. Many of his best tackles he can remember, 'like the one I got on Franck Mesnel (of France) . . . it was 1991, I think. Anyway, I got him a beaut then. I knocked him back a few yards.' Similarly: 'I could think of the tackle I did against Rives (Jean-Pierre Rives, his hero) in 1982. It wasn't so much a tackle as a shoulder charge.'

Mind you, Winterbottom, in his debut year, paid for his impudence in challenging the great French flanker. He recalls Rives grinning at him before the very next scrum, and realising that punishment was imminent, as it was from Rives's minders in the French pack. Given the aura of invincibility he has developed since, it is almost unthinkable to imagine Winterbottom subjugated and censured that day.

You may get him to recall some of his best tackles, but there is never any question of him gloating over them. The pleasure is rather that it validates his technique ('hit him in the right place, time it right'), and besides, he refutes the notion that he is purely a tackling machine, a sort of combine harvester for the threshing of anybody daft enough to run at him. 'I enjoy supporting players and getting the ball around as much as anything,' he said.

And who could deny Winterbottom anything as he thunders into his final phase as an England player? He has 54 caps, is generally thought to be at the height of his powers and is a certainty for next summer's Lions tour. If you doubt his resilience, the relish with which he embraces adversity, then consider that his favourite venue is Parc des Princes in Paris, precisely because of the 'hostility' and 'intimidation' which greets visiting English teams.

Twickenham's regulars will be grateful that today's game is not in the Bois de Boulogne. What they will not see, though, even on English rugby's home territory, is the Winterbottom of the changing-room, or the post-match rituals.

'There's no great fuss, he doesn't make a big commotion about anything, he doesn't push his way to the front to be interviewed after the game,' Uttley said. 'He's the sort of person who, if you want to go out and play rugby, and you know it's going to be a tough match, is a great comfort to have alongside you in the side.'

On a day, in other words, like today.

(Photograph omitted)