Autumn Internationals: Roff graduates as elder statesman

The student who still has plenty left to teach
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The Independent Online

Joe Roff, the very model of a mature student on an undergraduate's course in philosophy, politics and economics, cycles up to the pavilion at Oxford University rugby club and slings his blue, red and yellow Harris Manchester college scarf over the back of a chair. Now, what to talk about: the subject of his latest tutorial - "Conservatism: is its fundamental value an objection to equality?" Or, perhaps, the chances of Australia winning a few matches on their forthcoming European tour and keeping the All Blacks from taking next year's World Cup?

"That Australia is egalitarian is possibly debatable," says Roff, and we both pause, gazing across an Iffley Road field resplendent in autumn sunshine and replete in oval-ball history, not to mention that of sub-four-minute milers. "And of course," I reply, "you've been a staunch defender of George Gregan as Wallaby captain." Somewhere along the line, we agree to do a bit of both.

There is no doubt that Roff, after 86 Tests in the Wallaby gold jersey from 1995 to 2004 and with a World Cup-winner's medal from 1999, is superbly qualified to hold forth on the sporting topic at hand. The other subject ushers a frown on to the 31-year-old's forehead as he acknowledges the fact that his rugby talent has opened the door to his home for the next two years. He will, barring injury, be only the fourth Webb Ellis Cup winner to appear in the Varsity Match, against Cambridge on 12 December.

"There's a possibility, if Australia as a small nation follows in other nations' footsteps, we will sacrifice our social conscience in the future," says Roff. "Actually, that's a bit wishy-washy, but there are elements about Australia that aren't egalitarian at all, in things like immigration. The Bush-Blair-[John] Howard type of government is going to be questioned and hopefully analysed really well in the next few years."

Back on the theme of Gregan - the scrum-half who is not touring this autumn but is tipped to add to his 127 caps next year and lead a recently faltering Australia into the global showdown in France - Roff is unequivocal. "I do think he's the right man. I think he's motivated - though how, I don't know, after that many Tests. It's just the tall-poppy syndrome; after he's been so good for so long, the critics are looking for something wrong with him. George doesn't win any players' player awards, but that's because they take it for granted he will perform."

Roff will catch up with his erstwhile Wallaby team-mates, captained on this trip by his old ACT Brumby buddy Stirling Mortlock, in Wales this week before they go on to face Italy, Ireland and Scotland. "It will be interesting to see how much mixing and matching [the Wallaby coach] John Connolly does," says Roff. "It's getting late in the World Cup preparation and it's quite dangerous to be trying many different combinations.

"Towards the end under [the former coach] Eddie Jones, we became quite prescriptive, the players weren't allowed to just play. Looking at the games this year under John, you could see an element of enjoyment coming back in. He knows how to win and he can be reasonably relaxed while being conservative."

There's that c-word again. And Roff, following in the cycle-tyre marks to Oxford of David Kirk, the 1987 World Cup-winning captain from New Zealand, and Rob Egerton and Troy Coker from the 1991 Wallabies, knows the city's elitist standing. He had a season with Biarritz in 2001-02 and another in Japan more recently, and could easily have boarded the gravy train to a professional club favoured by many antipodean players. But he chose to set himself up in a different way by getting a good degree.

So Roff moved with his wife, Sarah, into a flat a drop kick from the Bodleian Library, and revels in everything he sees. "The unique Oxbridge teaching style - the one-on-one teaching of a subject that the tutor has written books about - is a really conducive atmosphere in which to learn. In professional rugby you can't help but start to feel you're on automatic. I was marking up on the same New Zealand winger four or five times a year, every year."

Roff says the All Blacks are "dangerously well-prepared" for the World Cup, whereas Australia, with a smaller pool of players, cannot afford to take time off in next year's Super 14. Also, the physical nature of today's Test game perturbs him. He was no pygmy at 6ft 3in but had the subtle skills to intercept in mid-air Jonny Wilkinson's pass in the pivotal moment of the Second Test of the 2001 Lions tour.

Roff's fixture list lately has been rather more modest. Playing at centre, he waltzed through the Second XV from London Welsh at Iffley Road for two tries a fortnight ago. On the flip side, last Monday the Dark Blues lost 54-0 to a Wasps XV bristling with muscle and top players such as Joe Worsley, Dave Walder and Jonny O'Connor.

"There's a line I have to tread," says Roff, "between saying, 'This is how we do it in professional rugby' and knowing there is a different set of values here." He had ample chance to talk it all through when he wore his "Back to School" fancy dress at Captain's Cocktails last Wednesday night. As he "weans off the rugby by ticking one last box, the Varsity Match", the debating will go on. Good on him, as they say in egalitarian - or is it? - Australia.

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