Rugby Union: Grayson born again to run

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The Independent Online
Paul Grayson's conversion on the road to Twickenham seems to have been completed at an almost Biblical rate. "One game has wiped out nine months of misery," he said. "I knew it was do or die." Grayson was referring, of course, to the tied Test against the All Blacks when England were written off, not least because Grayson was playing at stand-off. You might have thought they were talking about Larry.

In the build-up to the game, he didn't read newspapers but he was still aware of the criticism. "Family and friends kept me informed. Basically it was that England hadn't got anybody else left and as my granny was unavailable they had no choice but to pick me. I was under tremendous pressure but it was mostly from myself."

Afterwards, when Grayson was reunited with his club Northampton, Ian McGeechan congratulated him on what he described as a great performance. "Geech really rates that All Blacks team. He said that England had finally found a running fly-half and he wondered what all the fuss was about. He took me to South Africa so he knew what I was capable of."

McGeechan, the Northampton coach who masterminded the Lions' remarkable triumph over the Springboks during last summer, took two stand-offs from the Saints, Grayson and Gregor Townsend. But Grayson had damaged a thigh muscle in March and did so again in the second match of the tour, in the mud and rain against Border in East London. "I knew it was the end," Grayson said. "You can try and con your way through it but you'd be letting people down."

Two days after the Border skirmish, Grayson had a few beers in Cape Town to mark his 26th birthday before flying home alone. "I was non-plussed. It was only when I got back and started watching the Lions on television that I really started to feel the loss. Geech told me to forget about everything and to look after myself. The rehab was good and basically I did nothing for two months."

Grayson, a member at Northampton golf club, on the edge of the Althorp Estate, played a few rounds and, as befits the new-found status of a rugby union player, holidayed in Bermuda.

Mike Catt flew to South Africa as Grayson 's replacement, and Townsend established a world-class half-back partnership with a familiar face, the Northampton scrum-half Matt Dawson. Going into the tour, Townsend felt he had been messed about by Scotland, who tended to play him at centre; coming out of it, his reputation was such that if he wanted to be regarded as a stand-off and nothing else, then club and country would have to listen - especially as Cardiff RFC had offered him the freedom of their city. In the light of what has happened since, it would not be surprising if Cardiff renewed their interest in him.

McGeechan's problem at Northampton is that Grayson also regards himself first and foremost as a stand-off and, as Downing Street would tell them, it's not really practical to have two leaders at No 10.

"Gregor was in pole position after the tour," Grayson said. "I think it's better for Northampton when we are both on the field." So this season Grayson has played at both full-back and centre - and he has used the experience to his advantage. "It did me the world of good. When you play out of position you get a much better appreciation of what players need from the fly-half."

Last week he was in rich form at stand-off in helping to overwhelm London Irish; Townsend was at centre. The status quo is retained for today's game against Richmond.

"It's almost as if we play with two stand-offs," Grayson said. "When I was at the bottom of a ruck against the Irish, Gregor popped up in my position and scored a fantastic try. Like in any profession we're fighting for places but it's not got to the stage of rivalry in soccer. I'm pretty affable and we get on well whether I'm at No 10 or he is. We're fairly intelligent creatures."

While Townsend, once again resuming behind a beleaguered Scotland pack in the autumn internationals, had no joy at Murrayfield, Grayson was faring little better. He was a member of the Emerging England side submerged by New Zealand at Huddersfield and failed to get on in the First Test against the All Blacks at Old Trafford, a ground he is familiar with on account of his lifelong support for Manchester United.

But when Catt was concussed against South Africa, Grayson replaced him. "I had a poor half and I was having a fairly hard time. I was regarded as the weak link. Other than those who have the interests of England and Northampton at heart, I'm not bothered about people's opinions. On TV the other day, Alan Hansen was saying that if criticism is justified do something about it. If not, ignore it. I was lucky to be at Twickenham [for the Second Test against the All Blacks] and I was determined to give it absolutely everything."

Clive Woodward's brief was to move the ball wide and quickly with Grayson lying almost as close as a quarterback. "I stood as flat as I could in front of the All Blacks' defence, attracting the play to me and creating space for the boys outside. I didn't have any doubts that I could do it, although not many people had seen me try. The only way to gain the respect of the All Blacks is to play rugby against them, not indulge in the usual damage limitation.

"After half an hour, I thought, 'Christ, how are we going to keep this up', but we had no thoughts of stopping. It was like a heavyweight contest and after 12 rounds you're not sure whether to carry on fighting after the bell. It was a style that is not necessarily foreign to the English but it has to be dragged out of us."

Was it his finest hour? "As a kid, I had a couple of good performances for Preston Grasshoppers. Only kidding. I've not played better than that. It was everything I'd dreamed of."

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