Balshaw craves a role in the fast show

Bath flyer desperate to play the pace card as he tries to make a regular starting place his own at last

One operation, especially for a professional sportsman, is one too many. Iain Balshaw has had four, so if Jonny Wilkinson, or any other member of England's burgeoning casualty list, wants to compare notes, Balshaw has become something of an authority on the subject. From the shoulder to the ankle, he has copped it, picking up injuries that have handicapped a career which has a graph of Grand Canyon highs and lows.

When Balshaw goes to ground, observers wonder if he will ever get up again. Last week, in a very physical Zurich Premiership match against Wasps, the Bath full-back went down clutching his back and there was a huge sigh of relief at the Recreation Ground when he was able to resume after receiving treatment.

The culprit was not a Wasp but the Bath prop Duncan Bell. "He ran into the back of me and I thought, 'Oh my God'. It's worse when you're not expecting it," Balshaw said. Roundheads are not normally given to apologising to the cavaliers, but Bell muttered: "Sorry, Balsh''.

Today Balshaw gets another run with the Red Rose élite, this time at full-back against Italy in Rome, four years after appearing there as a replacement. With Jason Robinson moving from full-back to centre, Clive Woodward describes England's back line as "incredibly exciting''. Nevertheless, because of injuries, the coach has been forced into changes, pointing out that full-back is Robinson's best position.

Balshaw finds himself peering through another window of opportunity. "There is such a large pool of players available for selection that you can argue that everybody's place is up for grabs,'' Balshaw said. "Now I'm back in the starting XV this is my chance to get a regular spot. I have got to bring my pace into the game whether it's attacking or counterattacking. I feel confident and very sharp. Training with England again has been a wonderful experience.''

It hasn't always been the case. Balshaw, who was educated at Stonyhurst College and who represented Lancashire at junior level at both cricket and tennis, arrived at Bath with the impact of a starburst. His unorthodox running made him exceptionally dangerous, and international recognition at the age of 20 also made him over-confident. When defences began to work him out, Balshaw often found himself running into a cul de sac.

"At first I was very relaxed about everything and that seemed to work. When things weren't going so well I found I was becoming uptight. I was trying to give 100 per cent every time and I hope I have learned not to force the issue.

"I couldn't quite put my finger on what was good for me and what was bad for me. Plus it's a lot harder now. The tackles are stronger and it seems that everyone is as fast as each other.''

Balshaw scored two tries against Italy at Twickenham in 2001, two more against Scotland and another against France. Form that won him a place on the Lions tour to Australia. Although he appeared as a replacement in all three Tests, he was one of a number of Englishmen who did not see eye to eye with the coach, Graham Henry. Matt Perry, Balshaw's club-mate at Bath, was rightly regarded as the best full-back on tour before he too was stopped in his tracks by injury.

Balshaw took a battering in both mind and body. Having seen his confidence undermined in Australia, he then had operations on both shoulders, one following a dislocation, the other needing reconstruction. Throw in a couple of torn ankle ligaments and Balshaw was reduced to watching television with an arm in a sling and his foot in plaster.

"I became a real couch potato. I was beginning to think someone didn't want me to play rugby any more. In fact, getting injured allowed me to step back from the game and chill out. I'd had five or six years without a break and I spent too much time analysing myself. The more I watched the videotapes, the worse it got.''

His performance in the failed Grand Slam attempt against Ireland in Dublin in the autumn of 2001 made for particularly uncomfortable viewing. Woodward unwisely stuck by him that day and almost two years later, during which Balshaw had played very little rugby, he stuck by him again in the build-up to the World Cup.

Balshaw limped off during the defeat by France in Marseille, but a week later he scored a cracking try in the big victory over the French at Twickenham, a touchdown that helped to clinch his place in the World Cup squad. After scoring an invaluable try against Samoa, Balshaw had already got two against Uruguay when he was taken off on a stretcher in the 44th minute.

"I went for a gap that wasn't there,'' he said. The injury turned out to be a minor ankle strain. He didn't play a part in the quarter- and semi-finals, but came on in extra time in the final against Australia in Sydney.

"We reached the ultimate goal,'' Balshaw said, "but everybody will want to beat the world champions so we've got to keep pushing forward, and I have to do everything in my power to keep the jersey.''

Whether the jersey bears the number 15 or not is of less concern to Balshaw. "The game has developed so much the back three are now much of a muchness. You have to be able to catch, kick and run so you can mix and match the wings with the full-back.''

Unlike Wilkinson, who is beginning rehabilitation following his operation, Balshaw chooses not to wear protective gear. "I found it restricted my movement and it felt uncomfortable,'' Balshaw said. "In any case, I don't take the big hits that a No 10 does. I went for five years without an injury and then I just happened to pick up four bad ones in quick succession. I'm sure that's all behind me.

"I would love to go on England's tour to New Zealand, but I take it week by week. That is my focus. If I forget that, there ain't going to be a summer.''

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