Rugby Union: New-look Healey can put words into deeds

A fitter, humbler Leicester Lip is ready to claim England wing berth for the World Cup.
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ACCORDING TO the England back-room staff, who know a bit about these things, Austin Healey's body is in precisely the same immaculate shape as his tongue: lean, muscular, aerodynamic and capable of unimaginable speeds. Honed to perfection, in fact. The Leicester Lip has always talked an extremely good game of rugby, but after a year and a half of blood, sweat, tears and a degree of self-denial entirely at odds with his natural tendency towards the hedonistic, he is suddenly producing performances that threaten to stretch his rich vocabulary to breaking point.

"It's taken me 18 months to get here," he said this week, "here" being England's right wing. Or should that be left wing? One of the many glories of Healey's recent purple performances against the United States and Canada, not to mention his four-try gambol against the galactically challenged Premiership All-Stars XV at Anfield, was his rejection of positional orthodoxy. Released from his shell by Clive Woodward, the England coach, he is beginning to see the entire pitch as his oyster. "Where on the field do you play, Austin?" "All of it, actually."

To say it was not always like this would be an understatement of Twickenham- esque proportions. Badly bruised, both physically and egotistically, by the exceptional Jeff Wilson during England's two-Test series in New Zealand in June of last year, Healey was demoted to the bench for the pre-Christmas internationals with Australia and South Africa. He then languished behind both David Rees and Steve Hanley as the final Five Nations' Championship unfolded. Healey even failed to make the bench for the Cook Cup Test in Sydney during the summer, despite the fact that Rees, his great rival, was a million miles away from match fitness.

But all the time, Healey was running what felt like a million miles a week in pursuit not of match fitness, but tournament fitness. He started training for this World Cup in the summer of '98, following to the last letter a programme set down by Dave Reddin, the Loughborough University sports science boffin who has been in overall charge of red rose conditioning since July 1996. "It's been hard," acknowledged Healey. "No sugar, no salt, no McDonalds, no getting pissed on a Saturday night. No nothing, really, except sprint sessions and weights sessions.

"Sometimes I'd run out at Welford Road for a big Premiership match feeling like death, simply because Dave had hauled me through the grinder the day before. Of course, the Leicester coaches didn't exactly throw a party in celebration of the fact that I was putting England first, but they accepted it. I set myself three targets: to make the World Cup squad, to make the World Cup starting line-up and to win the World Cup itself. I put those targets to Dave and he said: `Right, this is what you do.' And I've been doing it ever since.

"The thing about Dave is his determination to get that little bit extra from the people he advises. He's basically a no-limits bloke. He doesn't accept your excuses and he takes no account of your history, all the baggage you bring with you. I've been married a year and a bit now and I have to admit that my family life has suffered a certain amount of neglect. I'm not alone in this, by any means. Others in the England squad, people like Neil Back, have also put themselves through it."

Yes, but Back is mad, isn't he? A complete and utter fitness freak? "He may be crazy," agreed Healey, "but God, he's in some shape."

Having nudged his way in front of Rees for a place against Italy in the opening World Cup pool match on 9 October - one more energetic contribution against a second Premiership invitation XV this evening should secure his position - Healey is reaping the reward of a sea change in attitude. He does not go so far as to describe himself a reformed character, but he considers himself far more of a professional than when he first started banking his Leicester salary cheques after moving south from Orrell.

"This is the fittest and most tuned in I've been since Leicester's European campaign in 1996-97," he said, conjuring up memories of the astonishing solo try he put past Llanelli in that season's Heineken Cup quarter-final. "I spent two years messing about at Leicester. I was either playing too much rugby, or I was doing too much drinking. My attitude was bad; I was too arrogant, too involved with people telling me how good I was. Now that I can see it for what it was, I regret it deeply. If you don't keep things in perspective, you start doing daft things. For a start, you go around kicking people." (That last was a clear reference to the nasty little spat with Kevin Putt of London Irish, an incident that landed Healey with an eight-week suspension).

"Perhaps there's no middle ground where I'm concerned: I'm either fully focused on my rugby or I'm mucking everyone around. I'm just grateful that the people who spend time with me, not just in the England set-up but Dean Richards and John Wells and Joel Stransky at Leicester, have taught me the value of discipline. Until now, I've never been one for goal-setting. These days, I set myself goals all the time. I know what I want and I'm willing to make the necessary sacrifices."

One thing he no longer wants - at least, not to the exclusion of everything else - is the England No 9 shirt. He remains the senior scrum-half at Leicester and enjoys the constant involvement it affords him, but he accepts that Matthew Dawson and Kyran Bracken have the Test position between them. "I'm happy to let them fight it out," he said. "I don't see my international future solely in terms of proving myself a better scrum-half than either Matt or Kyran. They're pure specialists and they're up there amongst the best in the world.

"I'm just enjoying playing rugby for England and playing it in whatever position Clive thinks fit. I don't think I'd succeed as a wing at club level now, simply because I can't get too excited at the prospect of touching the ball three times a game. It's different with England, though. You're likely to get three touches in the first three minutes. I love the licence I have to roam the field, to take people on in areas they least expect to see me. If I kick the ball now, it's because there is no other option available. It's my type of rugby, basically."

And Woodward's type of rugby, also. When the England coach looks at Healey, he no longer sees merely a zippy little runner armed with a world-class cover defence and an obsessive love of the sound of his own voice. He sees a powerful, adventurous, super-confident, all-purpose footballer capable of adding an extra dimension to the red rose attack. And he hopes that come the Italy match at Twickenham a fortnight today, 75,000 other people will see it too.