Rugby Union: Greening's gifts flourishing under regime of hard graft

Sale's dynamic hooker now has opportunity to stake his claim for a World Cup place.
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PHIL GREENING draws a discreet veil over the incident - at least, as discreet a veil as anyone educated at the Kingsholm Academy of Particularly Hard Knocks is likely to draw - but it still eats away at the back of his mind. Very nearly 15 months ago, he produced the first undisputed masterpiece of a performance seen from an English hooker since Brian Moore cut the Welsh to ribbons at Twickenham in 1990. His reward? A polite message from Clive Woodward along the lines of: "Well played, son. Come back when you're a bit fitter."

A bit rich? You could say that. But then, there are any number of rich aspects to the Greening story. Here is a gifted, perhaps uniquely gifted, footballing front-rower who, despite a five-star pedigree as captain of the England Schools and Colts XVs, contrived to earn himself an unfortunate reputation as a hard drinking, hard fighting roughneck who would not be seen dead in a gym if there was a pub within walking distance. More intriguing still, here is a born-and-bred Gloucester boy who became so disenchanted with his local theatre of dreams that he left one of the few British cities that lives and breathes rugby for one that largely ignores it - Manchester, joining the Sale club.

All that is in the past, however, and at 23, Greening is far too young to mull over old negatives. Especially as he has taken Woodward at his word, shed a quivering mass of puppyish body fat, taken a good two minutes off his personal best for the 3,000 metre torture run so beloved of the current England hierarchy and won himself a starting place against the United States at Twickenham this evening. "It's come as a bit of a shock," he confessed this week. "I've become so used to sitting on the bench for an hour and trying to prove all my points in the last 20 minutes that I don't quite know how it will feel to be on the pitch for the kick-off. I know this much, though: it's a hell of an opportunity for me."

To every onlooker bar the most important one - Woodward the coach and selector-in-chief - Greening appeared to take his opportunity on a swamp of a pitch in New Zealand's North Island in June of last year. His display for a England touring side fresh out of kindergarten against the might of an All Black second-string pack featuring Norm Hewitt, Kees Meeuws, Norm Maxwell and Andrew Blowers was well out of the ordinary in terms of pace, vision, handling skills, angles of running and sheer unbridled, unadulterated energy. When Woodward kept faith with Leicester's Richard Cockerill for the Test in Dunedin a week later, the close-knit Gloucester contingent were not the only ones left wondering what the hell and why.

"Sure, I was a bit flat about that one," acknowledged Greening. "The Test side had just gone down 76-0 in Brisbane, so I naturally identified the Hamilton game as a big chance and approached it on that basis. Clive was up front about it, though. He told me I needed to work on my fitness and, anyway, he promised me the last quarter in Dunedin and he was true to his word. To be honest, I was happy just to be involved."

But there was worse to come. He was already falling out of love with the Gloucester club - or, to be more precise, with some of the people at the top end of it - and push quickly came to shove as last season's Premiership campaign got out of the blocks. "I'd had months of injury trouble - thigh, knee, hamstring, you name it - but the real problem was that I'd allowed myself to become complacent. There was no real pressure on me to perform and no one to get hold of me and shake me up a bit. I just began to despair of the place, so much so that I didn't even want to go to the club. I'd just walk in for treatment and walk back out again. They nicknamed me `The Ghost'.

"It was still a real wrench to leave, though. Gloucester had been everything to me, right through my schools rugby at Chosen Hill and my junior club career with Spartans. When I left, there was an unbelievable fuss: phone- ins on the local radio, a whole letters page in the Gloucester Citizen, articles in the match programmes. But I felt it had to be done. I moved to Manchester and joined Sale, largely because John Mitchell [the former All Black who coaches the England pack] was in charge there. He's been fantastic news. He was determined to get the best out of me and when that meant flogging me to death, he flogged me. I owe him a great deal, not least my place in the England team for this game."

Much to Greening's chagrin, Mitchell has moved to Wasps. His charge has no plans to follow him; if he leaves Sale at the end of the coming season, as seems likely, he may well take up one of several offers to play National Provincial Championship rugby in New Zealand with a view to securing himself a nice little Super 12 earner. However, much depends on whether he can overhaul the tighter, more narrowly focused Cockerill in the run-up to the World Cup and establish himself as England's number one No 2, as it were.

"Actually, I get on very well with Cockers and I must admit I thought he'd get the nod for this one. He's a character, isn't he? Seriously chopsy. I used to talk a fair bit myself, and if there was any fur flying I'd be the first one to pile in with a punch or two. But I don't bother with that stuff any more. I just concentrate on getting my hands on the ball and playing a fast, open style of rugby.

"That's what I'm looking for this weekend; I've got a real shot at things now and I want to make it special. I've got Phil Vickery, an old Gloucester mate, on one side of me and there's another Kingsholm boy, Trevor Woodman, on the bench. If he gets on, it really will be something, won't it? I know I'm no longer a Gloucester player, but a big part of me will always be there. Yes, I'd love to go back one day. Not quite yet, but sometime."