Rugby Union: You and whose army? Rodber's

Twickenham's command performer has seen his career go from back to front.

WHEN THE national anthem is played, most of the England team link arms, presenting a thick white line before going into action. Tim Rodber is the exception. He stands to attention, straighter than a ramrod. "It's a mark of respect," he said. "I am very proud to hold the Queen's commission, very proud to be British."

Rodber is not only captain of Northampton but a captain in the Green Howards, a Yorkshire and Teesside regiment that is as close to his heart as playing for England. "Once a Green Howard always a Green Howard," he said. "It stays with you for ever."

Rodber was introduced to the army when he was 16 and a scholarship helped him to graduate from Sandhurst. "The qualities it teaches you, such as leadership, discipline, ambition, passion, fitness, all marry in with what you need as a rugby player." If he is beginning to sound like a Kitchener - "Your Country Needs You" - poster, so be it. It goes with the uniform, even if the demands of being a professional rugby player mean that the kitbag he carries is not army issue.

"Sometimes it might seem difficult to justify my salary but my job is recruitment and public relations. At the end of the day Tim Rodber is an army officer who is able to play international sport."

Rodber, it has to be said, looks the part. He arrives at Franklin's Gardens, Northampton's ground, in a Range Rover, accompanied by Charlie, a border terrier, and Whisper, a chocolate labrador. After England had broken the resistance of the Springboks at Twickenham, Rodber and Whisper travelled to an estate in Scotland. The army taught him to fire an SA 80 automatic rifle. On the moors his chosen weapon is a 12-bore shotgun and he was able to fill his freezer with pheasant. Matt Dawson, the Northampton and England scrum-half, also does a bit of shooting. "Sometimes," Rodber said, "we hang rabbits and pheasants on the players' pegs in the changing-room so they can take them home."

Rodber and Dawson were responsible for the Lions move that shattered South Africa in the First Test in Cape Town last year. It resulted in Dawson scoring the try of the series and stemmed from a pick-up at a scrum by Rodber. Now we know why the move was called "bullet".

In those days, of course, Rodber was an influential figure at No 8 - a dashing cavalry man with immense strength and pace. Anybody who would have suggested that he should be converted into a poor bloody infantryman by joining the front five would have been given his marching orders. Yet that is where this great back-row forward now finds himself. "At first I thought, 'Christ, no way'. I have always considered myself a No 8 but in retrospect it's turned out to be a good move."

With the arrival this season of Pat Lam at Northampton, Ian McGeechan, the Saints coach, saw the 6ft 6in and 18- stone Rodber as a second row and with England blessed with back-row forwards Clive Woodward, the national coach, was thinking the same thing.

"Both of them were instrumental in the change," Rodber said. "It's quite bizarre. I've won 36 caps and only two of them in the second row. I am not overwhelmed by it although the opportunity to play well in a different role excites me. I don't profess to know everything about it and I am still learning, but the game has changed to the point where it's not so much the front five and the back row as the front four and the back four.

"I have a dual role. I need to do the basics of scrummaging, line-out and hitting rucks and mauls but in attack I can give the forwards another option. More mobility, more thought perhaps. With the ball in hand I think as a back row forward."

As a hybrid lock-No 8 Rodber was omnipresent against the Springboks, at least until he was replaced in the second half. "I really wanted to stay on. Clive said well done but he thought I looked tired. I felt OK. I wasn't waving the white flag. I have missed some games so perhaps I am not quite match fit. I think that was in the back of his mind. It's not a problem although you're bound to be pissed off."

Before joining what they used to call the engine-room, Rodber took pointers from Martin Johnson, Martin Bayfield and John Mitchell. "As a pair, Jonners and I communicated pretty well. Certain things I already knew. I'm pretty good in the line-out and I knew what was required in the scrum. I had to hit more rucks and mauls and I now understand why the front row gets so excited about things.

"In scrummaging you will never know the amount of effort needed to move just a few inches unless you're in there. Team spirit won through in the scrum. Everybody relies on each other and that is quite rewarding."

For rugby, read the army. Although his regiment has seen action in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, Rodber's conflicts have been confined to the pitch, most famously at Port Elizabeth where he was sent off for fighting against Eastern Province during England's tour of South Africa in 1994. Retaliation was how the officer and the gentleman described it.

On occasions Rodber has been accused of going AWOL during matches and he confesses that his new position could be good for the soul. "I've been criticised in the past for drifting. Brilliant one week, not so good the next. In the second row you have to be there all the time. You have to work and that could be good for me. There's nothing I didn't enjoy about the game against South Africa, apart from being subbed."

Woodward's brief is to win the World Cup and Rodber, who will be 30 next year, will be satisfied with nothing less. "When we meet South Africa again in the World Cup we should be a better team. Last week was good for English rugby and it meant a lot on the day but it was just stage one. There are lots of examples of us having great wins but they were just one-offs. We have to take this all the way down the line. We should be the team that wins 17 on the trot. We have enough good players to achieve our holy grail."

Rodber, who was born in Richmond, Yorkshire, lives in a converted barn on six acres of Northamptonshire countryside. "It's quiet and there's lots of space. In the public environment you're under pressure all the time. When I go to the shops everyone's either patting you on the back or ignoring you, depending on how well the team did." Last week they were offering him Christmas hampers.

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