Balshaw aims to shake off the rust in world-class style

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The Independent Online

Gold retains its value - golden boys do not. Iain Balshaw, once so glitteringly precious that he might have been pursued by Jason and the Argonauts as well as every cheque-book-wielding Premiership coach in the land, developed a layer of rust in Australia two summers ago, when he failed to make the starting line-up for any of the Lions' three Test matches against the Wallabies.

The cruel one-liners struck him like arrows. "Balshaw did a remarkable job on tour," ran the most cutting of them, "despite being blessed with all that talent."

He came home in pieces, as much a victim of his own high-handedness as of Graham Henry's spectacularly unsympathetic approach to man-management - or man-mis- management, as it came to be known to those who spent endless weeks on the receiving end of the New Zealander's fabled verbal aggression. Unaccountably, the England coach, Clive Woodward, then ignored Balshaw's glaringly obvious problems and selected him ahead of the infinitely more resolute Matthew Perry for a Grand Slam match against Ireland in Dublin. Result? No Grand Slam.

Yet only seven months previously, the Bath full-back had delivered one of the defining individual performances of the Woodward era - an era that has transformed the image of English rugby at international level and drawn praise from all quarters, with the single exception of Mr David Campese of Sydney, New South Wales.

Balshaw chose the French as his victims, running them into the ground in a Six Nations match at Twickenham and inspiring a six-try, 48-19 victory.

He tackled, too. When the Tricolores attempted to fight long-range brilliance with long-range brilliance, he cut them down in the corners in a style that effectively dustbinned the popular notion that he was a defender wrapped in a white flag rather than a white shirt.

As coincidence would have it, he makes his first Test start in 22 months this evening against... the French. (The likes of Fabien Galthié, Christophe Dominici and Xavier Garbajosa, survivors of that trauma in 2001, will remember every hair on Balshaw's head when they confront him in Marseille).

And if things happen for him - if the surging voltage of old suddenly registers on the electrometer and the pace begins to scorch and scald - an early return to Australia, this time on World Cup business, will not be out of the question.

"I would love to go back there and play as I should have done the first time around," he said this week.

Australia might have been made for him - hard grounds, fast going, sun on the back, the scent of endless possibility in the warm air - and Balshaw was not alone in thinking he would claim the place as his own during the Lions tour.

But Brian Ashton, his fellow Lancastrian and principal supporter, was not there to guide him - of England's five-man coaching team of the time, only Ashton and Woodward were overlooked - and therein lay the seeds of calamity. When Balshaw most needed someone to talk his language, that someone was on the far side of the equator.

Ashton, quite possibly the one coach who truly understands Balshaw, is not a member of England's inner circle, either, and has not been since the Six Nations defeat in Paris almost 18 months ago.

But Balshaw, 24, has suffered so many setbacks since his last international start - a profound loss of form and confidence, a dislocated shoulder, torn ankle ligaments, a shoulder reconstruction, an eternity of inactivity - that he is now ready to respond, far more willingly than he once did, to new voices and different ideas.

"I'm bored with not playing," he admitted. "Now I'm back fit, I want to be positive in everything I do."

He sounds more positive than at any point since France 2001. "For me, it's a question of being spontaneous. I used to pride myself on taking the opportunities that came my way, but the Lions tour - the opportunity of a lifetime - passed me by. I didn't take the chance.

"There was too much analysis of things for my liking - the more I was asked to study tapes, the worse I felt. I'm different now. I've gone back to being relaxed, just as I was when I arrived at Bath.

"The injuries were difficult to cope with. I was a couch potato, hanging around at home watching television with my arm in a sling and my foot in a cast.

"But my self-esteem was so low after the Lions tour that injury was the best thing for me. It gave me the time to take a step back and chill out. Now that I'm back, I think I have a shot at a World Cup place. It's all about playing well when you're given the chance. And this is a chance, no question."

If there is an urgency about the immediate situation, it is of Balshaw's creation rather than Woodward's. England are now so strong in the back-three area that was once such a transparent weakness that the coach - armed with the likes of Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen, James Simpson-Daniel and Dan Luger - could witness a serious Balshaw misfire at Stade Vélodrome today, draw a line through his name, and still fly to Perth with a smile on his visage.

But a fit and firing Balshaw would add something magical to the mix. Rather like Jeremy Guscott, his celebrated predecessor in both Bath and England back divisions, he can petrify opponents as much by suggestion as by deed. Both men employed the threat of the possible, as well as the actual.

Should Woodward see enough of what he likes on the shores of the Mediterranean, no one in his right mind would dismiss Balshaw as mere travelling reserve. Robinson has far more of the wing than the full-back in his union DNA, while Lewsey's tactical and positional indiscipline against New Zealand in Wellington in June led to his being re-positioned for the Test against the Wallabies in Melbourne the following week.

At his best, Balshaw combines the finest attacking attributes of both men: Robinson's ability to beat the first-up tackler - and the second-up, as well - and Lewsey's talent for hitting the right angles from the right depth at the right time. And that, in Woodward's book, adds up to gold dust.