Rugby Union: Grewcock's huge ambition

Paul Trow says the Saracens lock has a giant of the game in his sights
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TO CALL it the clash of the Titans is a bit vulgar, but even at this early stage of the season today's confrontation between Saracens and Leicester is one to savour.

Both sides are unbeaten so far in Allied Dunbar Premiership One and on the evidence of this season and last (when their three contests produced a win apiece and a draw), they should be well matched again.

It will be a surprise if Vicarage Road does not attract the season's biggest crowd to date, but one important observer, the England coach Clive Woodward, will have at least two bigger things on his mind than the actual result - Martin Johnson, the Lions' captain and one of the world's leading lock forwards, and the main threat to his international future, Danny Grewcock.

During last season's Five Nations' Championship, the 25-year-old Saracens lock, three of whose seven caps have been won as a replacement, was cast very much in the role of understudy to Johnson and Newcastle's Garath Archer. Then he went on the depleted and disastrous summer tour of the southern hemisphere, and now he is in the squad for next month's World Cup qualifying games with Holland and Italy.

But whereas a year ago he was a promising youngster on a learning curve with a fresh pair of legs for the last 20 minutes, he is now seen as a genuine candidate for promotion.

Johnson, following his summer's rest, has begun the season with a vengeance, no doubt aware of the strides made by his combative heir apparent. Which sets the stage nicely for an interesting meeting between the two today.

Grewcock, for one, is looking forward to it. "Whenever I play against Martin it's always enjoyable," he said. "He's one of the top second rows in the world, so to compete you've got to pick up your game. It will certainly be a challenge.

"He's one of those players who even when you're playing against him you're always looking at what he's doing. He's very active around the pitch and brilliant in the line-outs."

Grewcock, a native Midlander who joined his local club Barker's Butts from school and did not switch to Coventry until he was 21, is still amazed at how far he has come. "As far as my own development is concerned, everything has gone much quicker than I originally thought. I played rugby at school in Coventry - I didn't have any choice, really. Being a big lad I was just told 'you're playing' - but I was never selected for representative age- group teams or anything like that. Because I hadn't been on that particular treadmill, it might explain why I'm so enthusiastic about it all now.

"Basically, I've always been a second row although Coventry tried me out at No 8. In all honesty, I was a very average No 8 and had no confidence - I seem to be in the game more as a lock. I've been using weights to build myself up since I joined Coventry. I'm 6ft 6in and weigh 171/2st which I am very happy with. I wouldn't want to get any heavier because the props wouldn't be able to lift me as high at the line-outs and it would put more pressure on my mobility in the loose.

"Coming to Saracens at the beginning of last season was a dream move. Francois Pienaar is very keen for us to play attractive rugby, but no one's place in the first team is secure and that's as it should be."

Despite such squad psychology, Grewcock's future seems as secure as any young player's, especially as he has just signed a three-year contract with Saracens. "I wouldn't have done that if I'd had any doubts about the financial situation here. I know most players speak well of their millionaire owner, but Nigel Wray really is a great guy and a genuine fan.

"Obviously international rugby is a step up, but league rugby is now very competitive. There are no easy games and more is being asked of us each week - we're all fitter than before, especially the second rows. Two years ago, you could probably get away with just doing the scrums and line-outs, but you now need to do the sort of work that the back row do to open up the game."

Nowhere is this trend more in evidence than the southern hemisphere where Grewcock's rugby education took in a particularly harsh lesson last summer, notably with his sending off against New Zealand in Dunedin. "The referee thought my boot had made contact with an opponent's head when the scrum collapsed, but even though I've always been a fairly committed player there was definitely no intent on my part."

Despite his dismissal, he is unstinting in his admiration of his opposite number that day, Robin Brooke. "Of today's great locks, he's the one I most admire. He has wonderful handling skills and an almost telepathic awareness of the game.

"Objectively, you need to take what benefits you can from experiences like last summer's tour. There is a lot to learn, but overall it wasn't very enjoyable and I don't want to dwell on it.

"It was an eye opener for the players and showed us how much work we've got to do, especially if England are to compete at the World Cup next year. We've got to work on our skills, I've set my personal targets."

One of which, a rather large figure wearing the Leicester No 4 shirt, will loom sharply into focus this afternoon.