Rugby Union: Ravenscroft's battle of the centre ground

New England cap confronts the Wallabies' Tim Horan in tomorrow's rugby union Test. Chris Hewett reports from Brisbane on a task that might have made Hercules blanch
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YOU might legitimately portray it as rugby's variation on the Rich Man, Poor Man theme, or perhaps repackage it along the lines of the Tortoise and the Hare. Born within six months of each other in 1970, but time zones apart in terms of their respective sporting impacts, Steve Ravenscroft and Tim Horan go eyeball to eyeball in Brisbane tomorrow in a confrontation that gives the archetypal slow developer a chance to ambush the precocious high achiever.

Horan, first capped against the 1989 All Blacks as a 19-year-old centre with dancing feet and hands of purest gold dust, will make his 57th appearance for the Wallabies when Australia defend the Cook Cup against an unranked, unrated and unfamiliar England outfit at the Suncorp Stadium. He has scored precisely 100 points in a Test career interrupted only by occasional injury and his fellow Queenslanders expect him to add to that tally at the expense of an anonymous journeyman who, back in 1991, was bumming around with Bradford and Bingley while their blond hero was winning a World Cup winner's medal at Twickenham.

We shall see. According to Philippe Sella, one of few contemporary midfielders with more to shout about than Horan, there is more to England's new inside- centre than meets the eye. "He has developed his game out of all recognition," says the Frenchman, who played so successfully alongside Ravenscroft at Saracens last season. "The thing that impresses me about Steve is his error count. It is incredibly low, both in the tackle and in ball retention, which is so important in today's game. He has much to look forward to."

Few Englishmen have looked forward to trial by Horan over the last nine years. Having played an exuberant role in Australia's 40-point dismantling of the old country in the summer of 1991, he proceeded to make the decisive play of a tourniquet-tight World Cup final 13 weeks later: a perceptive covering pick-up deep in his own 22, a slippery scuttle away from a battalion of English tacklers, a sprinter's spurt down the right touchline and a weighted grubber kick to the corner flag to force the attacking line-out from which Tony Daly smuggled the try that would separate the combatants.

There was another vintage contribution in Sydney last summer, when Phil de Glanville and Nick Greenstock found Horan, filling in at outside-half, too hot to handle. Ravenscroft, a Steady Eddie out of the de Glanville mould, will not have been entertained by footage of the torture inflicted on England's midfield that night.

For all that, there is a steely air of determination about Ravenscroft that dove-tails nicely with his undetectably slow but persistent rise through the representative ranks. "The only target I've ever set myself is to play to the very limit of my ability," he explained. "It's the only realistic target for any player, in my view. The rest comes from your playing environment, from the quality of the people around you, from the circumstances in which you find yourself performing. In the right surroundings, you always find yourself being stretched. The trick is to keep pace with whatever progress is being achieved in the team context. By definition, if you manage to accomplish that, your own game is moving in the right direction."

Born in Bradford, Ravenscroft lives up to his no-frills inheritance. He played rugby league at school but took more readily to the 15-man game, so readily indeed that after forcing his way into the England Schools side at 18, he drew a deep breath and headed for Auckland for a few months of real action.

"I played for a North Harbour club called Northcote. Richard Turner, a pretty formidable No 8 who some people might remember laying into Dean Richards during the 1993 Lions tour, was my landlord. The idea was to get a feel of grown-up rugby in the biggest rugby hotbed of them all. North Harbour was just beginning to get into its stride at provincial level - Walter Little was the big name in their midfield - and there was a remarkable intensity about the way players of all levels went about their sport."

Martin Johnson, last year's Lions captain, was playing in King Country at the same time and rather like the Leicester lock, Ravenscroft did enough to impress the hard local judges. He made the North Harbour Under-21 side before flying home, moving to London and joining Saracens. England caps at Under-22 and Student level followed, but things went quiet until a run of outstanding club form propelled his name back into the hat last season; a late-flowering renaissance that earned him an A cap against Ireland in April.

"Why the hiatus? I don't know. It's impossible to foresee how a sporting career is going to take shape, especially in a game that has changed so radically in the space of three or four years. I've always been pretty happy with my consistency of performance, but you need something else to happen for you if you're going to get noticed by the people who matter. That something else was Saracens or, to be more specific, their success last season. Playing in a winning side gave me the kind of projection others enjoyed before me. It made the difference."

Tomorrow, England will look to Ravenscroft to make a difference. The first-choice centres, Will Greenwood and Jeremy Guscott, are 13,000 miles away in Blighty, one nursing a dodgy shoulder, the other his one-year- old daughter. Given that Horan is back in his pomp and that Daniel Herbert, his midfield partner, was the hot-shot player of the Super 12 tournament, their replacement is contemplating a task that might have made Hercules blanch.

Still, the new boy has been around a bit, if not at the very highest level. When he looks at Horan across the halfway line, he will not see a Wallaby prodigy who just happened to fulfil every ounce of his potential. He will see an exact contemporary with two arms, two legs and a footballing brain. Just like himself.