Rugby Union: Shift that worked for Sharp: Five Nations focus / A reformed English prop has found salvation north of the border. Barrie Fairall reports

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The Independent Online
Alan Sharp is unemployed, but on Saturday he has landed himself the most important afternoon's work of his life. Perhaps a building site hard hat is more familiar, but when he wins a first cap for Scotland against Ireland at Murrayfield the work should be right up his street. In the front- row demolition game, few come better than the Bristol loose-head prop.

English life has been tough on Sharp, no work and no play, but the Scots head-hunted their man once his representative playing career came to a standstill south of the border. Now England may live to regret not keeping tabs on an outstanding prospect after he had helped the then B team beat Spain in Madrid in May 1989.

Sharp may not have a Scottish accent, but a grandmother from Brechin has been enough to set him on the high road leading to honours and, at 24, there is a lot of mileage left in this chunky 5ft 10in, 17-stone package. England's loss could indeed be a big Scottish gain and the Irishman Paul McCarthy will be the first to sample Sharp's scrummaging power at international level. It should be quite a contest within a contest.

'I know nothing about him,' Sharp, who succeeds David Sole, said without a hint of apprehension, 'but I can't wait to get out there.' As an exile, he should at least feel at home. Just behind him in the second row will be Andy Reed, a Cornishman who plays for Bath and was spotted wearing a Heart of Midlothian scarf, and Damian Cronin, brought up on English rugby at the Rec. Anglo party time is completed by London Scottish back row Iain Morrison.

Sharp practice? Well, there are mixed views on the subject. The English establishment, for example, take a dim view of the sort of cross-border raid that results in the capture of a player they feel has already made a commitment to one country. Others argue that in the current situation Sharp should not be unduly worried.

Nor is he. 'I had a letter and after talking to a few people I decided to go with the Exiles. Quite honestly, I'm glad I did. I heard nothing at all after the B trip. A couple of people phoned up the England coach, Dick Best, and said come and watch me. But I got the impression he'd been told by people above not to pick me. Funny how things work out, isn't it?'

Rob Cunningham, the Bristol coach, takes up the theme. 'If the South-West had been more positive in their stance, I don't think there would have been a problem. But we couldn't get any response. We were getting positive noises out of the England team manager, Geoff Cooke, but when Alan couldn't get any form of commitment and wasn't being spoken to by the right people, he made his own decision.'

Cunningham, a Scotland B hooker who sat on the bench for the full side 14 times without ever winning a cap, has no qualms about Sharp's move. 'While the rules are as flexible as they are Alan has obviously decided to put his scrummaging where he thinks it will be best used.

'England had every opportunity and although my previous background may suggest that I would favour Scotland, we have had no influence on his decision. Our view is that we advise our players on what we think is the best route for them and that covers everything - from region to country. We spoke to Geoff Cooke and the selector, John Elliott, on his behalf in October, but in the end Alan made up his own mind.'

No one will ever know, of course, whether or not Sharp's appearances in the English courts had a bearing on the lack of communication. 'It may have done,' he said. 'But I don't really know.' It was in October 1989 that he received a suspended sentence after putting himself about in a pub. 'There was then another incident and they charged me with violent disorder. I pleaded not guilty and it dragged on for two years. In the end, I pleaded guilty to threatening behaviour and they gave me a fine.'

A reformed character? 'Oh, yes. It's been nearly three years since the second case and I haven't got in a bit of trouble. I just keep out of places. I was unemployed for ages and now I'm unemployed again. The building game has got so bad and the club have been looking since July to see if they can get me a driving job.' Signing on? 'It's something you've got to do, but it's not very nice.'

So the driving ambition has taken another course. And, after a year away from Bristol playing for Clifton, the former Scotland Under-19 and Anglo-Scots Under-21 player is back in business on the field. 'His strength,' Cunningham said, 'is, well, his strength. He's a very good scrummager and actually a very good ball player. He is not quite as mobile as he was before he went to Clifton, but I think he's a great prospect.'

Mobility has been hampered recently by a knock he received playing for the Exiles against the North and Midlands at Northampton on 12 December. 'One of their players tackled one of ours and I caught his hip. It just took my leg away. The physio said it was the worst knock he'd seen for years and that it was a miracle there wasn't a break.'

The leg is still sore as the big day approaches, 'but it isn't too bad, scrummaging'. It is what he is built for and he has a word or two that might interest England's tightest of tight heads, Jeff Probyn, who could find the new Scot challenging him at Twickenham on 6 March. 'I don't think Jeff's as good as everyone makes out. When the small props come along he doesn't seem to like them too much. If you keep the pressure on him then at some stage in the game he's got to come out and face you.' Sharp words.

(Photograph omitted)

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