A tale of two centres: The one who made it and the one who has been left behind

They began the Six Nations as England's first-choice midfield but the season has panned out rather differently for Newcastle team-mates Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait.
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He was very much the "other" centre when the Six Nations began. Jamie Noon was picked for England's opener against Wales in Cardiff, but the whole world wanted to talk about his partner, and Newcastle team-mate, Mathew Tait.

He was very much the "other" centre when the Six Nations began. Jamie Noon was picked for England's opener against Wales in Cardiff, but the whole world wanted to talk about his partner, and Newcastle team-mate, Mathew Tait.

Aged 18, and billed as the new Jonny Wilkinson, Tait was the bright, young thing of English rugby who was pitched into action in the Millennium Stadium after only a handful of senior games. It did not go according to plan. England were awful and their new centre combination had a difficult afternoon. There were those who expected Noon to pay the price, and Tait to be spared.

"I was pretty worried after that," the 25-year-old Noon said. "I was conscious there was a possibility there would be a reshuffle."

As it turned out, it was Tait who was dropped, and even now Noon feels there might have been a certain amount of injustice in the way so much blame seemed to be laid at their door.

"Before the match there was a lot of hype about the pair of us and afterwards there was a lot of blame, with people saying it was the centres who were not firing, but as a centre every part of your game - defence, attack - relies heavily on what happens inside you, at the breakdown, in contact, how slow the ball is and I think that played against us. And I think it's harsh to lay all the blame on us." But they did.

At least Noon kept his place and, working like fury on his game ever since, he has clearly persuaded the England management that they made the right decision.

Despite being six years' Tait's senior, and having won his first cap back in 2001, Noon is still only at the start of his international career. The game against Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday will see him win his 10th cap, but he says: "I'm nowhere near my prime yet."

When he returned from England's North American tour in 2001, where he won those first caps in a side missing the significant Lions contingent who were in Australia, he knew he had to get back into the international squad.

"Once you have tasted it you just want it more and more," he says. "The absence of it just drives you on and makes you more determined to succeed."

Even now, having played the entire Six Nations season, he is only too well aware that the likes of the injured Mike Tindall are lurking in the background, eager to reclaim their places. To that end, he is working tirelessly to improve a kicking game that some (himself included) perceive as being perhaps not as strong as it might be. "I have been working really hard on my kicking and I think that I am getting better."

His target to become the complete centre is not that far away. He plays equally comfortably at inside or outside centre. "I am adaptable," he insists, "and the way the game is progressing these days the only time you play in the position you have been selected is at the set-piece."

The Calcutta Cup match against Scotland represents the England players' last opportunity to put their case to Sir Clive Woodward for a place on the Lions tour to New Zealand this summer. "I haven't really thought too much about it. Of course. it is every player's dream to play for the Lions, but where I am in my career now has been such a big step," he trails off, perhaps thinking for a second or two on one particular thing that is going to change his life for ever.

Four weeks ago Noon became a father when his wife, Rachel, gave birth to Lewis Benjamin at Newcastle's Royal Infirmary. The demands of Test rugby are so great that there is possibly a twinge of guilt when he adds: "If I don't get on the Lions tour at least I will be able to spend more time with my wife and son."

Fatherhood, and rugby, leave precious little time for his other great passion, sea angling. "I was introduced to it by Nick Makin, when he was playing for Newcastle," Noon explains. "I have to confess I have been hooked on it ever since, although I don't get that much time to do it, and no doubt becoming a Dad will take up even more of my time."

His nickname among his Newcastle team-mates is "Codhead" - "because I come from Goole, near the fishing ports of Hull and Grimsby in what is now called South Humberside, although I like to think of myself as a Yorkshireman."

This is one Yorkshireman who right now is concentrating on angling through defences, rather than hooking all the remaining cod in the North Sea. Given his determination, the Scots, and maybe even the All Blacks, could find themselves floundering in Noon's wake.