Rugby Union: Tait wins first tackle with media scrum at entrance to red rose gallery of fame

At 18, England's youngest debutant since Wilkinson is coping well with great expectations. Paul Newman reports
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The Independent Online
It was perhaps the trickiest moment so far in Mathew Tait's fledgling career. His coaches and playing colleagues all confirm that the 18-year- old has shown no nerves during his lightning progression from the playing fields of Barnard Castle School to the England training ground in preparation for his debut against Wales in the Six Nations Championship on Saturday. Now, however, there appeared to be more than a hint of anxiety on the young man's face as he confronted a line of fearsome- looking individuals, men who have looked unflinchingly into the eyes of many a sporting legend.

Andy Robinson, England's head coach, sensed the problem. "I'm sorry, guys," he said. "We don't like you right in our faces. I'd rather you were right back out of the way. Otherwise we'll just move even further back if you're going to carry on. It's your choice." Tait will no doubt be hoping that the Welsh defence retreat as promptly as the phalanx of photographers he faced yesterday on his first appearance before the national media. Twenty-four hours after learning that he would become the second-youngest England debutant for 78 years - his club colleague Jonny Wilkinson was younger when he came on as a replacement against Ireland seven years ago - the Newcastle Falcons flyer was given a taste of the public scrutiny he will face for years to come should only half the hype that has surrounded him in the last week become reality.

If the nerves were understandable in front of a roomful of journalists in a Bagshot hotel, Tait did nothing to contradict the view of him as a well-balanced individual coping admirably with the prospect of an international career despite having played fewer than 20 games for his club. Twelve months ago he was studying for his A-levels (he achieved A grades in biology, geography and sports studies) and it was not until the end of last season that he made his Newcastle debut, scoring a try against London Irish.

"It's a fantastic opportunity that's been presented to me," he said, sitting alongside Robinson. "I'm just grateful for that. Now I've got to prove I'm worth that position in the team." Did he ever feel nerves? "A little bit, just like anyone else," Tait said. "But a game's a game. I've just got to get on with it. If I let my nerves take over I'm not going to play as well as I know I can. I try to treat every game the same, to just get on with things. You have to work hard at your skills and believe that they're good enough to carry you through. As long as you know within yourself that you've worked hard enough at them then there's no need to be nervous.

"I'll prepare this week as though it was any other game. There are obviously bits and pieces that I have to learn - moves and set-plays that are different to what we do up at Newcastle."

Robinson confirmed that Tait has quickly settled into life with the national team. "I haven't seen any nerves from him," he said. "He's fitted in tremendously well. His age doesn't come into my thoughts at all. Mathew's been picked because he's an outstanding rugby player and he's been playing tremendously well this year. I've got no doubts about how he'll cope on Saturday."

The presence in Bagshot of Wilkinson, England's injured captain, has assisted the settling-in process. "Jonny's been a great help," Tait said. "He's briefed me on what to expect with the media and with other pressures. He was in the same position a few years ago - and he's not done badly since. Jonny's a fantastic role model to follow."

Tait agrees that it should also help having his club colleague, Jamie Noon, alongside him at inside centre, the Newcastle pair having won the vote following the injuries that ruled out Mike Tindall, Will Greenwood and Stuart Abbott. At 25 and with only five caps to his name, Noon, who is rooming with Tait, is hardly an experienced old hand. "I'm trying to help him as much as I can but at the same time I'm having to make sure I do myself justice," Noon said. "Probably the most important thing I've been able to do is to tell him: `You never know how long you are going to be here, so enjoy it while you can'."

Is Tait as nerveless as everyone claims? "I think he is," Noon said. "This is all new to him, but he's taken it all in his stride. The way he plays is refreshing to me. He inspires everyone around him. He's so laid-back and has got such a fresh attitude. Things that might have been a problem or a source of stress to others in the past just don't trouble him. On the field he just has a go. He's shown in the games he's played that he's more than capable of handling the pressure and more than skilful enough and quick enough to play against Wales - or anyone else come to that."

Raised in County Durham, Tait came to the fore with the National Academy and at Barnard Castle School, which also produced the Underwood brothers and Rob Andrew, his director of rugby at Newcastle. "I played in a variety of positions at school - full-back, wing, centre, fly-half," Tait said. "But at the age group levels, from 16 upwards, I've always played at No 13. It's my preferred position."

At one stage Tait's ability was such that Martin Pepper, his school sports master, put him in the scrum. "He often had to be moved to a position to nullify him, otherwise he'd just walk through the opposition," Pepper said. "He'd be put at second row or No 8, anywhere to get him out of the way." Robinson's interest, however, is in what Tait can offer at inside centre. "The No 13 position has been an area that we have been looking at," Robinson said. "Mike Tindall has done a great job and is very physical in terms of his threat, but I think the team has been lacking a little bit in terms of that little bit of extra pace that Mathew can give us. He will give us some extra strength in that No 13 position both defensively and in terms of our attacking options. What I also like is his understanding of the game, which is very important in that position."