Rugby Union: Weedon at home in the `red zone'

Rugby Union: Kiwi lock a walking sheet anchor as Wasps face Gloucester in tomorrow's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final
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THE DOOM and gloom brigade were in full voice when, within weeks of Wasps winning the Courage League title a little under two years ago, the scandalously under-rated Matt Greenwood accepted a player-coaching role at Second Division Wakefield. "We'll miss every hair on his head," declared the Jeremiahs of Shepherd's Bush. "No other lock in England plays like Matt."

They were right. To find another Greenwood, the most consistent side in London were forced to take their cheque book all the way to Katikati.

A quiet, humdrum north island town tucked away in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, Katikati is home to about 4,000 hardy, rugby-obsessed souls. One of them, Mark Weedon, proved so adept at playing the national game - or rather, practising the national religion - that he grew far too big for both town and province and ended up enjoying the provincial championship limelight with North Harbour, winning a Super 12 contract with the Canterbury Crusaders and making a couple of All Black trials, where he mixed it with such luminaries of his tough, confrontational trade as Ian Jones and Robin Brooke.

But a birth certificate from Katikati is also a passport to the world, it seems; by some strange quirk of fate, a friend of the Weedon family had surfaced at Wasps in a coaching capacity and, when Greenwood left his crater-sized hole in the champions' engine room, he sent word straight back across the equator. Hence Weedon's sudden appearance at quiet, humdrum old Sudbury, which remains the spiritual home of Waspdom despite the first XV's move to swanky Loftus Road. "I haven't regretted a minute of it," he said this week as he looked forward to tomorrow's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Gloucester. "In fact, I'd love to stay for another couple of years."

Although his initial contract runs out this summer, Weedon may well find his employers thinking along similar lines, for he has played the Greenwood role to perfection, showing the same sort of selfless commitment to life in the trenches while frequently sticking his head above the parapet to win priceless line-out possession, more often than not in the "red zone" near his own line. In a Wasps pack full of unorthodox, heavily stylised performers -the Trevor Leotas and Simon Shaws of this world are one-off talents who rarely do things by the book - the resident Kiwi is a walking, talking sheet anchor.

Which is probably why he was asked to replace a certain Lawrence Dallaglio as club captain. As Will Green, Wasps' shrewd and accomplished tight-head prop, points out: "We have forwards who can do the fancy stuff, but it's also vital to have a guy who plays it straight down the middle, who takes the ball up, hits the breakdowns and clears the rucks. It's not glamorous and it doesn't make the headlines, but it allows others to do their thing. Basically, Mark is always there when we need him."

It would have been wholly understandable had Dallaglio's overarching presence made a positive, pro-active style of leadership almost impossible for Weedon to pursue; 30-year-old New Zealanders with a Super 12 background may know their way around a rugby pitch but, generally speaking, England captains are not put on this earth to do the bidding of others. When Weedon insists that he has been given a free rein, it reflects well on the characters of both men.

"Lawrence has a hell of a lot to offer whatever side he might be part of: he's a world-class player and a proven leader," said Weedon, relaxed and confident after a boots-and-all training session under the tutored eye of Roger Uttley, the former England coach and manager. "I'm not the sort to shun advice or ignore people just because I'm meant to be in charge and I'm pleased to say we have a very easy-going relationship. Actually, I think Lawrence has benefited from not captaining the club this season. When you are trying to lead both club and country, the pressure must be intolerable.

"Very few people do both back in New Zealand; I can't remember Sean Fitzpatrick captaining both Auckland and the All Blacks."

In common with an increasing number of southern hemisphere imports, Weedon believes the international playing field is beginning to level out. A couple of years ago, the dynamism and velocity of Super 12 rugby was considered, at least by its more enthusiastic practitioners, to be wholly out of reach of mere Europeans; now, there is much talk of northern standards improving and gaps closing.

"There are always going to be differences, mainly because the northern hemisphere season is so long; I trained every day in Super 12, just as I train every day here at Wasps, but the Super 12 season lasts four months, not eight or nine. It's taken a fair bit of adjusting to, the sheer scale of the campaign in these parts. But I'd say both fitness and skill levels are rising in England - the pace is right up there alongside the best New Zealand provincial stuff - and they'll rise still further now Europe is back on the club agenda.

"I'm very excited by Europe, simply because it will generate such a buzz. People here have been pretty critical of Super 12 and I'd accept that it is, or at least was, a very different brand of rugby and that it took one or two liberties, but it got a new audience talking about the game and, more importantly, it got them watching it. We're all in the business of selling rugby to whoever will buy it and from that point of view, Super 12 worked.

"Not that I miss it greatly. I always wanted to play in England and I wanted to play at full tilt, not come here at 32 and serve out my time. I've always responded to a thriving club culture and that's what I've found here at Wasps; in fact, the experience has been everything I'd hoped for and more.

"Back home, the club culture is beginning to die a little, especially in the rural provinces. Here, the opposite seems to be happening. Just look at the crowds we're pulling in."

Wasps, nicely on a roll after an in-and-out pre-Christmas run, may well break their Loftus Road record tomorrow, thanks to an upsurge of late- season interest in the capital and the traditional fanaticism of the Gloucester rugby public. "It's a wonderful prospect: I left New Zealand to see the world and I'm certainly seeing it here in London," said Weedon. "All I need to see now is some silverware in the Sudbury trophy cabinet."

If Wasps, the best club side never to have won the Cup, get past Gloucester and go on to Twickenham glory in six weeks' time, the quiet hard man from All Black country will have earned his salary a dozen times over. As Bill McLaren would undoubtedly say, given half the chance: "They will never believe it in Katikati."