Rugby Union: Greenwood back to forge the link

Tim Glover hears how England's centre conquered a chronic injury
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The Independent Online
WILL GREENWOOD, a spectator for nine months, was at Wembley Stadium, not for the famous Wales-England match in April but for Manchester City's equally dramatic encounter in the play-offs with Gillingham. "It was tremendous," Greenwood, a City supporter, said. "The noise was unbelievable and I thought this is what the lads must have experienced against Wales. It brought home to me what I was missing and helped me to refocus."

Last Friday Greenwood's rehabilitation was complete. He emerged from England's training camp at Leeds and straight into the game against the American Eagles at Northampton on Tuesday night. "I'm fully fit," he said. "There's no question of this being a trial run. There will be no holding back."

Having announced, in time-honoured fashion, that he's taking his return "one step at a time", he can hardly admit to using Tuesday's game as a fast track to the fuller-bodied re-match with the US at Twickenham on Saturday, but none the less that is his intention.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, is expected to name his strongest side on Wednesday - the day after Northampton - for the Twickenham match as the home countries begin their World Cup warm-ups. In addition to England against America, Wales entertain Canada on Saturday and Scotland play Argentina.

At 26, Greenwood has won only 10 caps but has missed almost as many through injuries. Leicester, who won the championship last season, have missed Greenwood, but not as much as England. "He's one of those rare specimens with natural ability which gives him a vision other players don't have," Fran Cotton, the 1997 Lions manager, said. Now the missing link is back.

"There were two main problems," Greenwood said. "I had the classic sportsman's groin strain, which is like the beginning of a hernia, and in addition there was severe inflammation." Greenwood first felt the injury when England put 100 points on Holland in a World Cup qualifier last November. Eight days later, when he scored an invaluable individual try against Italy, the damage got worse and he failed a fitness test, missing the games against Australia and South Africa.

When he returned to Leicester he was told to rest but whenever he resumed training the problem flared up. "There were bad days. I wish I'd had a plaster cast or something so that people who stopped me in the street or at matches had something to see. Whenever I tried to sprint the pain returned. I couldn't see where a cure was coming from. I don't blame anybody but with the World Cup deadline approaching I thought it was time to become proactive."

Greenwood had heard about the treatment Jose Maria Olazabal received from a man in Munich. Hans Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, a homeopathic doctor who has worked on several Bayern Munich players and the England footballer Darren Anderton, seemingly turned Olazabal from an armchair case into the Masters champion, curing a mysterious foot injury where other specialists had feared to tread.

With Woodward's blessing Greenwood flew to Germany for a consultation with Healing Hans. "On 8 June I was standing in the doctor's office in Munich and this German bloke's telling me I need an operation. It hardly filled me with confidence. I was thinking I had no chance for the World Cup."

In between two groin operations Greenwood received between 25-30 injections each day to his lower back of a formula containing honey extract, zinc, magnesium and enzymes. "After a period of rest I was able to resume fitness work. Although I got down I only had to look at the news and see what was happening to other people to keep things in perspective. I stayed hungry and mentally strong."

At 6ft 3in and 141/2st Greenwood has kept to his fighting weight with the help of a nutritionist. "I've been eating like a hermit and swimming with a support between the ankles so there's not too much leg movement. Training with the England squad is particularly hard work if you're not fit and I wanted to be more like a half-sculpted piece of clay rather than reappear as a big blob."

After returning from Munich with a more significant breakthrough than Chamberlain's - this one was about pace in his time - Greenwood was given clearance by the RFU medical staff on 20 July to take his place in England's World Cup training squad. "It felt so good to be back," Greenwood said. "There was the usual banter. You know, the game has changed and a try is now worth five points. Everybody's been very supportive, especially my family who were keen to get me playing again so they can receive international tickets."

It was his father Dick, a former England flanker and coach (he was around when England were unspeakably bad in the first World Cup in 1987), who started the ball rolling. "I got a cricket bat, a pair of boxing gloves and a rugby ball for my second birthday," Will said.

From Sedbergh School and Durham University - Will Carling's stepping stones - Greenwood progressed through Preston Grasshoppers, Waterloo, Harlequins, Leicester and the Lions. Greenwood moved from Quins in 1996, when Carling was the blue-eyed boy, and fell under the influence of Bob Dwyer, then coach at the Tigers, who moved him from outside to inside centre.

Greenwood was the only uncapped player in the Lions squad in South Africa in 1997 but his tour was cut short when he was upended in a tackle against Free State, hit the ground head on, swallowed his tongue and was unconscious for four minutes.

Greenwood, then, has had more than his share of disasters among the triumphs. He spent this weekend relaxing at the Marlow home of Ben Fennell, the Rosslyn Park captain, playing tennis, swimming and watching the USPGA on television. "It's about time I was right," he said. "I can't wait for the referee's two-minute knock on the dressing-room door."