Balshaw brings a twist to England's running story

While a few too many English-men for Clive Woodward's peace of mind were knocking lumps out of each other yesterday, Iain Balshaw prepared for the tour to New Zealand and Australia by thwacking a golf ball round deepest Somerset. "Don't worry," Balshaw promised, "I always do a warm-up first."

The concern over the Lancashire-born Bath full-back is deep-rooted and well-founded. Woodward, a con- firmed fan since seeing Balshaw play for England Schools alongside Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall among others, has been unable to select his prize asset in a starting line-up since October 2001. That was the occasion of a Grand Slam defeat against Ireland. Another trip to Lansdowne Road - with a diametrically different result - has been and gone without Balshaw, while he endured a frustrating 20 months of loss of form and a succession of injuries.

Now Balshaw is in possession of his England No 1s, a dashing set of threads courtesy of Hackett, and itching to step on the plane to the other side of the world. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I've only played nine times this season, and none of them for England, so I've got some catching up to do."

It used to be the opposition who had to catch up with Balshaw. His mazy running and regular try-scoring thrilled Twickenham in the spring of 2001, but foot and mouth booted the Grand Slam from England's grasp and, in the last match of that season, Balshaw damaged his shoulder playing for Bath in the play-off final against Leicester.

An underachieving Lions tour followed - "the biggest accolade in rugby, and I played rubbish" is his considered verdict - then a season of struggle for his club, followed by eight months off to recover from ankle and shoulder operations, removed him from the England reckoning.

Balshaw went from being a bums-on-seats player to finding his posterior deposited on the bench or, worse, the treatment table. "Bath were going through a bad spell," he said, "and all I could do was sit and watch." In December, Balshaw thought the torture was at an end. He ran in two tries on his return against Bridgend in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup: a heartening achievement given that his only scoring contribution in the whole of the previous season had been three dropped goals.

But the mid-winter soon turned bleak. Against Montauban in the next round of Europe, Balshaw fell on the point of his shoulder. He walked off the Rec, arm held to his side, misery on his face. "The only thought in my mind was that it might be as bad as my first shoulder," he said. "That would have meant goodbye to the World Cup. Instead it was a grade four injury of the a/c joint. Only three months' rehab."

That is the way with rugby: you do not have to be mad about anatomy to be a professional player, but it helps. Balshaw's instinct from his schooldays at Stonyhurst College - where the future England backs coach Brian Ashton was his mentor - was to be happier around a ball than a blackboard, but there would be no beating him in a quiz on shoulder reconstruction. He knows his labrum from his elbow.

"Your only choice is to do your best to get fit again," he said. "I attended England sessions, and watched them training. Clive [Woodward] kept me informed. At Christmas, the players and their partners went out for dinner in London, and we had tickets to Chicago."

From one windy city to another: Balshaw heads for Wellington this week, preparing for his first international appearance since 20 minutes as a Twickenham substitute against Ireland in March 2002. Woodward has kept faith, but the Maori, in eight days' time, will be no gentle reintroduction. "Christian Cullen is in their squad," Balshaw said, "and he is world-class. I've never been to New Zealand, but it's rugby-mad."

Perhaps the biggest question for Balshaw, if the 24-year-old's fitness can be taken as read after a couple of recent run-outs for Bath, is whether England have moved on in his absence. Ashton has not coached the backs for a year; instead he looks after the National Academy. Woodward is in charge of the senior side, but the waves of attack from deep-lying positions favoured by Ashton (circa 2001) have gone. "I watched the Ireland win on television," Balshaw said, "and it was thoroughly deserved, but it wasn't brilliant in terms of running rugby."

During the narrow autumn wins over New Zealand and Australia, doubts were raised over Jason Robinson at full-back. The problem, if indeed it existed, was solved by the dashing Wasp, Josh Lewsey, who took over half-way through the Six Nations' Championship, with Robinson moved to the wing. "I don't think Clive will change a winning team," Balshaw said of the two Tests to come after the Maori match. "Not a Grand Slam-winning team."

Nevertheless, a rough reading of Woodward's 37-man selection, with seven men to be dispatched to the Churchill Cup in Canada after the Maori game, suggests that Balshaw and the five other back-three players - Lewsey, Robinson, Ben Cohen, Dan Luger and James Simpson-Daniel - will be on the main tour for the duration.

If so, Balshaw will find himself back in Australia. The scene of his Lions disappointment may yet be the setting of his revival: both this month and in the World Cup to come. "It's going to be a good experience," he said, and you sense that Woodward for one is hoping he is right.

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