Rugby Union: From Wallaby to wannabe: Robert Low meets the Aussie who has designs on an England shirt

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LET US fast-forward two years to the climax of the Five Nations' Championship in 1996. England face France in the deciding match, but there is a crisis: Tim Rodber and Martin Bayfield are injured. No matter, England have a utility man in the squad. He can play anywhere in the back five, he's 6ft 6in, tough, fast and a great ball handler. Best of all he's a man for the big occasion: he played in two World Cups, and he has a winner's medal too.

His name is Troy Coker and he has 15 international caps - for his native Australia. Is it fantasy to suggest he could swap the green-and-gold Aussie shirt for the red rose of England?

Coker will be eligible to do so in 1996, and he fancies the prospect. The International Rugby Board rules now state that players who wish to transfer their allegiance must have three consecutive years' residence in a new country and not have played for another union within that time. Coker fulfils the residence qualification (he has lived and worked in England for five years and plays for Harlequins) and last played for Australia in 1993.

But even when Troy is available, the RFU secretary, Dudley Wood, regards him as an undesirable Trojan horse inside the England walls. 'Whatever the regulations say I don't think there's any possibility England would pick him,' he said last week. 'We have got lots of home-grown players and we are looking to strengthen our team from them.'

The key for Coker is that he does not appear to feature in Australia's future plans. 'They've got a lot of good young players coming through. I got out at the right time and I'm not one for banging my head against a brick wall.'

In retrospect he may regret a radiophone call from Australia's coach, Bob Dwyer, which found him on a friend's yacht briefly moored in Cuba last year. 'He wanted to know if I was available for the match against Tonga and the one-off Bledisloe Cup game against the All Blacks. I hadn't trained for some time but I wasn't telling him that and he didn't ask. We beat Tonga but lost against New Zealand in horrible conditions and I wasn't in the squad of 21 for the tour by South Africa. I've never been told why but that's the Australian way.' If Coker had stayed on the yacht, he would be eligible for England in next year's World Cup, and to have such a superb utility player available might have tempted the England coach, Dick Best, who knows Coker well from his Harlequins days and whom Coker admires.

Coker is now 30, although he could pass for a lot younger. He first lived here when he was a post-graduate at Oxford (winning two Blues in 1988-89) and sees his future very firmly in England. He is general manager for Oxford Textile Mills, an import/export synthetic carpet business near Abingdon, divides his time between an Oxfordshire village and a London flat and will marry his English-Danish fiancee Pernille in August. 'I like this country,' he says. 'I like its accessibility to everywhere else. You can only go to Fiji so many times a year.' This weekend finds him in Berlin to meet an old friend, rather than watching the home internationals. 'I prefer to watch big matches on television rather than going to the game. I've been to the last five Varsity matches and every time I come away thinking: 'Why did I bother?' The standard is just disgraceful.'

He has equally trenchant views about the Courage League although he recognises its role in raising playing standards. 'I'm not big on travelling to Nottingham and back in a day for a game.' (He realises the paradox in complaining about such a trip when he was for a time a commuter from Australia, dividing his time between playing for his club in Brisbane and Harlequins until the RFU put a stop to it.)

'They should restructure the league so that the top five play off for the title at the end of the season, on Aussie or New Zealand lines. At the moment there's no incentive for anybody except Bath or Leicester. We (Harlequins) went down to Gloucester last weekend, played on a mudheap and lost and it didn't mean a thing.

'But the leagues have provided the launching pad for a lot of players who wouldn't otherwise have had a platform. And the standard is getting better and better. When I came over here I had no respect for any opposition second row, whereas now either I've got worse or the field is catching up.

'The Pilkington Cup is a brilliant concept. I like the knockout format. It appeals to an Australian. It's what we're used to: high-pressure rugby where every game means something.' What about an Anglo-Welsh league then? Alas, Coker has no time for Wales. 'I despise the place,' he says genially. 'I've had three tours there and had a good time but it doesn't appeal to me.'

That doesn't stop him telephoning Wales every other day to talk to the man he respects most: Alec Jones, the Australian at present coaching Cardiff. 'He was my coach at Western Districts in Brisbane. He's doing great things at Cardiff with limited resources. In my opinion he's the best coach in the world. He's a players' coach and that's been his downfall. He tells the authorities to stick it up their jumper when a player is badly treated but at least he can lie straight in bed at night.'

Like most top-flight players, Coker thinks they should receive greater financial rewards than the home unions are prepared to countenance. 'I like the concept of semi-professionalism. In Australia XXXX sponsors the World Cup team and dollars 750,000 goes into the players' fund to be divvied up according to how many games you play. It has to be declared for tax, of course. You're not talking sheep stations but it just makes life comfortable.'

It came as no surprise, in view of his mobility, to learn that Coker played rugby league until he was 18 and came into union by accident when, 'half-pissed', he went to watch a friend play and was press-ganged to make up the numbers. 'I just played the league way, which was to beat the crap out of anything that came near you and three weeks later I was playing for Queensland Under-18s.'

Now he's looking forward to his first summer away from rugby for some time. It will be a time to dream about that implausible England cap. Pity about next year, though. 'There wouldn't be too many people who could say they had two World Cup medals with two different countries,' says Coker wistfully.

(Photograph omitted)

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