A couple of years ago, the Wasps outside-half Alex King grabbed himself a flight to Toulouse, made the short trip east to Castres and spent a raucous, rugby-ish weekend with two of his great friends, Paul Volley and Mark Denney, who had indulged their sporting wanderlust by abandoning the London rugby scene for a season or two in the Midi-Pyrenees. "It was difficult not to have a good time," King recalled, a couple of days ago. "We spent most of our time in one fantastic fish restaurant or another. It was lovely." He paused for a second, then added: "I'm not sure how lovely it will be this weekend."
Early this afternoon, at the hour King and his brethren would have been climbing into a third bottle of the local vin de pays, Wasps face Castres at Stade Pierre Antoine in one of those spine-tingling, winner-take-all pool deciders that have become a calling card of the Heineken Cup. The Frenchmen, with their assorted Georgians and Romanians and Tongans and South Americans, gave their rivals a hurry-up of very serious proportions in the opening match of the tournament last October, leaving High Wycombe with a losing bonus point and, perhaps crucially, a split decision on the try count. The return match comes with the tag of "classic in waiting".
King calls it a "seize the moment occasion", and if his current form is any guide, he will be the first to do the seizing. His performance against Perpignan last weekend was among the best by an English stand-off since Jonny Wilkinson gave up rugby in favour of a surgical reconstruction of his entire body - certainly, it was the equal of anything delivered by Charlie Hodgson during Sale's march to the Premiership title last season. All the old stuff was there - the spatial awareness, the tactical appreciation, the subtlety of distribution - plus some new stuff, too. Not only did King embrace the intense physicality of the contest, but he kicked like a dream. Of the 17 points he contributed, only five were in the "gimme" category. The rest were from positions that would have tested any marksman in the game, Jonny-boy included.
"I've known Alex five years now, and to my mind he's the best big-game No 10 in the country," pronounced Shaun Edwards, the Wasps coach. "I'm in no doubt at all about this. There may be one or two outside-halves who, over the course of a long season, might be said to have performed more consistently. But in the important matches? Alex, every time. When a scrum-half as good as Rob Howley describes him as the best leader of a back division he ever played alongside, you start listening, don't you?"
So what happened? What prevented King, who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Wednesday, from multiplying his five England caps by 10, to pluck the most appropriate figure from the air? All but the last of those caps were won off the bench over the peculiar period between 1997 and 2002, when Clive Woodward was struggling to make some sense of the national team and King was a quarter in favour and three-quarters out of it. He had the skills. Everyone said so.
Yet there was an air of diffidence about him, a whiff of temperamental fragility. When it came to body language, he whispered rather than roared, and this gave birth to a perception of weakness. He was anything but, of course - Wasps, of all club sides, have no truck with the weak - but in English rugby, the artist is always viewed with suspicion.
Casting an eye back at the King of a decade ago, he acknowledged his old defensive deficiencies while presenting the King of here and now as another animal entirely. "We're talking about two different players," he said. "I'm not much of a gym rat; unlike some of the younger players, I'd rather work on my skills than lift weights. But I've worked long and hard on the physical side of things, deconstructing my game and reassembling it piece by piece. If you talk to Shaun, who has been fantastic with me, you quickly understand that defence is where you start. As we say here: offence sells tickets, defence wins championships.
"It's one of the things that set Jonny apart. I'm a great admirer of other players' qualities, and Jonny was the number one outside-half in world rugby because he was stronger in the tackle than any other No 10. He also set new standards with his goal-kicking. There may have been other areas of his game that were good rather than great, but by doing everything well while being exceptional in two of the most important disciplines, he coped with the pressures of international rugby as well as anyone I've encountered.
"That's the challenge, isn't it? It's why I spend a hell of a lot of time practising my kicking. I've been in the game 11 years and won my fair share of titles, but goal-kicking is still there to be conquered."
He won the battle with his kicking last weekend, but the fact remains that Brian Ashton, the new head coach of England, does not consider him to be among the 65 leading players in the country. There are three specialist outside-halves in the Six Nations party: Wilkinson, who will not be considered until he recovers from his latest injury problems and gets himself some game time at Newcastle, plus two rookies in Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty. Down in the second-string Saxons squad are the likes of Ryan Lamb, the 20-year-old Gloucester stand-off, and Danny Cipriani, a 19-year-old Wasp currently to be found in the full-back position. Why, pray, is he not at No 10? Because the Londoners believe he is better off understudying King than usurping him.
Edwards does not buy the England hierarchy's argument for a second - "It's not my job to tell Brian who to pick, but I know what I see at Wasps," he said - while King, nowhere near as blunt a character, confesses to a certain bemusement. "I'm a better player than I was in '97," he argued, gently. "To be picked then and not now ... you might call it a strange rationale. This is a personal opinion, but if you're playing in a top team, you're performing well and you're English-qualified, you must have a chance. I'd jump at the opportunity to play for England again, because I believe I have things to offer. It's not down to age, I'm sure of that. Mike Catt is in the Six Nations squad, and Catty makes me feel young."
Out of contract at the end of the season, King has some decisions ahead of him. An economics graduate, he sees the City as a natural destination when it comes to making a second career for himself. Will we see him in pinstripes this time next year? "I'm living for the moment," he replied. "I won't be around too much longer, though. That's a fact of life. It's why I'm so intent on winning another major tournament while I can. It's why I see this game with Castres as so important.
"Our away form hasn't been good enough this season. We all know that. We've put ourselves in winning positions on several occasions, and messed up each time. This is a different kind of match, though - a game that will define our season. There is much more familiarity between the English and French clubs now, thanks to the regular contact at Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup levels. Some of the mystery has gone.
"But it's still a feather in the cap to win in France, especially when your opponents have a genuine interest in winning. As Castres see this game in the same way we see it, we can expect them to throw everything at us. It's the kind of fixture you live for as a professional sportsman.
"When you look at the quality of the teams already assured of a place in the last eight - Munster and Leinster, Biarritz and Llanelli Scarlets, Stade Français to all intents and purposes - you remind yourself of the fantastic rugby associated with the Heineken Cup. It's where Wasps want to be, where we think we belong. Since winning the title in 2004 we've missed out on the knockout stage, partly because we've been going through a rebuilding process.
"We're still evolving now, but by bringing the likes of Phil Vickery, Raphael Ibanez and Tom Palmer to the club, we've made competition for places far more intense than it was a couple of years ago. We have some brilliant youngsters here, but at this level, it's the gnarly types who get you through the tight games."
True, very true. In the 11 years of the Heineken Cup, only one inexperienced side ever laid hands on the trophy. That was Brive, who caught everyone with their pants down in 1997. There will be no repeat this season. The tournament will be won by the been-there-and-done-it thirtysomethings, not by the starry-eyed infants. King has done an awful lot, despite the worst efforts of the England selectors. He is almost satisfied, but not quite.Reuse content