Rugby Union: King proves stature of the small man

Wasps' stand-off strikes blow for the artists and weaves his way back into the England frame.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
MYTHS AND legends have always been the common currency of rugby union: the sages tell us that William Webb Ellis invented the game (he didn't), that Fran Cotton is always right (he isn't) and that Gloucester never take the field without eight head-hunting cannibals up front. That last one is particularly laughable, given that recent Kingsholm packs have been so conciliatory that they might usefully have taken out a group membership with Amnesty International. The problem arises when the myths are transformed into self-fulfilling prophecies - something that is happening far too often in the professional game.

Take, for example, those princes of the 15-man code, the outside-halves. It is a matter of historical record that the best of them, from Cliff Morgan to Michael Lynagh via Barry and Benny and Mark Ella, were artists rather than artisans, that they preferred creation to destruction, that they summoned order from chaos rather than the other way round. And generally speaking, they were also small - smaller, at least, than the average rugger- bugger.

Yet current wisdom decrees that the modern-day stand-off must take his Creatine, tackle his weight and mix it with the big boys. As a result, no one talks about wit or stealth or imagination any more. The S-word has become a swear word.

The obsession with size reached its apogee when Carel du Plessis, a spectacularly unsuccessful Springbok coach, refused to pick Hennie le Roux, self-evidently the best stand-off in South Africa, against the Lions in 1997. He chose Henry Honiball - an outside-half who prided himself more on his ability to perform every skill in the loose forward's manual than on his running ability or tactical acumen. Far from winning Du Plessis the series, the decision contributed handsomely to his downfall. Yet coaches around the world are following similar paths by sacrificing inspiration on the altar of size.

In France, Thomas Castaignede (5ft 9in, 12st 6lb) has been shunted into the centre by his coach at Castres and may well appear there for France in the Six Nations, despite the fact that his virtuosity at No 10 was the catalyst for the Tricolores' back-to-back Grand Slams in 1997-98.

In Wales, Arwel Thomas (5ft 9in, 12st dripping wet) failed to make the 30-man World Cup squad, despite being the most instinctive and visionary attacking stand-off of his generation. Depressingly, he has not even been able to command a first-team place at Swansea.

Yet maybe, just maybe, the tide is on the turn. When John Plumtree, the Swansea coach, gave Thomas a second-half run in the water-logged Heineken Cup match with Bath at St Helen's eight days ago, the little darling won the game with a flash of individual brilliance in the closing seconds. More than that, he tilted the whole balance of the argument towards Swansea with the crispness of his passing, the weight of his kicking and the expertise with which he marshalled his back-row forces and forced the West Countrymen on to the back foot. His was a celebration of the stand-off's art, albeit one that lasted 31 minutes rather than full 80.

And in England, something similar is happening. Alex King (5ft 11in, 13st 10lb) has long been the most subtle, sophisticated outside-half in the Red Rose game - when Clive Woodward took over as national coach in the autumn of 1997, King was his initial choice as England's strategist- in-chief - but injuries, both physical and psychological, have prevented him securing the maximum return on his talent. Until now. King's form for Wasps, particularly in the European theatre of activity, has been something to behold, and it will be a scandal of Archer-esque proportions if he is not named in Woodward's 36-man training squad for the Six Nations.

King's disappointments have been well-chronicled. Knee problems cost him a first Test start against Australia two years ago and, in his desperation to make up for lost time, he then agreed to accompany England on their southern hemisphere "tour from hell" while in no shape to do himself justice. He played against the New Zealand Academy in Invercargill - a fairly ghastly experience all round - and then lasted 46 minutes against the Maoris in Rotorua, perhaps the most embarrassing occasion in the history of English rugby touring. "I was pretty down about things," said the grandmaster of under-statement this week. "Just about the best thing you could say about my situation was that I still had a day job with Wasps."

It was there that he began his rehabilitation, a complex and challenging process that culminated in his decisive contribution to Wasps' Tetley's Bitter Cup final victory over Newcastle last May. "If I was going to get myself back on my feet - and I very much wanted to - there was no more positive club environment in which to set the wheels in motion," he recalled. "People talk about the work ethic at Wasps and rightly so; it was in place long before I arrived - Rob Andrew personified it - and nothing has changed since his day in the sense that we make the most of ourselves by putting our backs into it. It took a hell of a lot of time and effort to get myself back into shape, but I had all the support I could have wished for."

A player of rare intelligence, King understood his own predicament sufficiently to accept that without a harder physical edge, he would never leave an imprint on the international game. But there was a world of difference between beefing himself up by half a stone or so - when he joined Wasps in 1996, he weighed in at 13st 4lb - and becoming a slave to the twin dictators of professional union, the multi-gym and the multi-vitamin tablet.

He stayed true to his belief that with a little thought and a good deal of skill, modern back divisions could create scores by second-guessing and out-manoeuvring rugby league-style defences, rather than trying to blast a hole through them.

So the grey cells still have a place in this one-dimensional world of muscle, bone and sinew? "Absolutely," said King. "There has to be, for the sake of the game. Rugby is crying out for play-makers, not just at No 10 but at scrum-half too. Without them, the sport is not really itself; there should always be more than one way of skinning a cat, because people would soon get bored with watching sides bosh it up the middle every Saturday afternoon. When the Australians won the World Cup, everyone congratulated them on their defence. But they played the best rugby with ball in hand, too, and that's what made them worthy champions in my book."

Tomorrow afternoon, Wasps should underline their status as the most legitimate of England's Heineken Cup pretenders by beating the gifted but spasmodic Frenchmen of Bourgoin for the second week in succession. King will be the pivotal figure in their strategy: not only will he mix up his kicking game by employing the chip and the grubber, and the diagonal punt to the open-side wing, but he will attempt to free his runners with sleight-of- hand passes of all descriptions. And in the space of 80 minutes, he will perform the great service of reminding us that without the little guy, rugby is merely a freak show.