Balshaw returns with impeccable timing in hour of need

The full-back who once led England's opponents a merry dance is set to take the stage again. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online

The thing about being stuck in an England rugby-style time warp, as Dr Who might usefully explain to the viewing community when he returns to the television screen later this month, is that past and future have a nasty habit of colliding, with the most disorienting results.

The thing about being stuck in an England rugby-style time warp, as Dr Who might usefully explain to the viewing community when he returns to the television screen later this month, is that past and future have a nasty habit of colliding, with the most disorienting results. Three days ago, Matthew Perry produced a performance of such iron-clad solidity for Bath against Gloucester that it was impossible not to regard him as the best full-back in England, which he once was, rather than as an international has-been, which is how the red rose coaches have treated him for the last four years.

Twenty-four hours later, Perry's successor in the Test side suddenly materialised from the back end of beyond - Leeds, to be precise, which in union terms amounts to the same thing - to secure the No 15 shirt for this weekend's Six Nations game with Italy at Twickenham. Iain Balshaw is more of a hasn't-been than a has-been, on the basis that he never did what everyone said he could do with sufficient regularity to justify his advance publicity. But the fact remains that England, struggling more desperately than at any time since the recently incapacitated Jason Robinson switched codes from rugby league, now find themselves back in their pre-Robinson world - one that had yet to be exposed to, and seduced by, the twinkle-toed riverdancing of the celebrated cross-coder from Sale.

It will be fascinating to see how England's attacking strategy, which has yielded only three tries in as many outings during the current tournament, is tweaked to accommodate Balshaw's elusive, but essentially orthodox style on Saturday. On the face of it, they should prosper. The latest statistics indicate that teams who patiently retain possession through three or more phases - once considered to be a surefire way of scoring - are less likely to cross the opposition line than those who attack straight from set-pieces, and Balshaw's highly developed grasp of rugby geometry makes him ideal for a dynamic offensive approach based on pace, angles and timing.

Not that the 25-year-old from Blackburn was talking himself into a particularly dynamic game plan yesterday. "I'll be concentrating on my basics," he said, in his flat northern tones. "I'll be thinking about taking the high catches and making my tackles."

There is more to Balshaw than that, of course; if the fielding of snow-covered rugby balls and the clattering of opposition backs were of paramount importance to England's fortunes, rather than bog-standard chores to be taken for granted, the ultra-dependable Perry would have accumulated 70-odd caps by now. Balshaw is back in the here and now because the world champions need a strike-runner rather than a stonewaller.

Happily, he has rediscovered his appetite for the weekly diet of thud and blunder. "I'm free of injury now," he continued, referring to his interminable problems with his shoulders, which have been surgically reconstructed to prevent more dislocations, and his ankles, the ligaments of which he once tore for a pastime. Most recently, a groin condition has prevented him from playing more than the odd match in a dozen. "How much rugby have I missed over the last four years? I haven't a clue, to be honest, but to give you a ballpark figure, I reckon I've spent 20 months on the injury list.

"Because of that, I'm both surprised and delighted to have this opportunity, which is one I really must take. Am I in good enough shape? Well, I can tell you this: I'm enjoying my rugby again, which is a big factor. I tend to stop enjoying it when I think too much about it, when I over-analyse my game. If I try too hard, try to force things, I begin to struggle. I think that's what happened on the Lions tour in 2001, when things went wrong for me. I was guilty of trying to manufacture too much, rather than backing my instincts, and when I do that and things don't come off, I can look a bit of a prat.

"The move from Bath to Leeds also helped. It gave me the kick up the backside I needed, and I've grown to love the set-up at Headingley, even though we're struggling at the bottom of the Premiership. I love my home life, too" - Balshaw is a family man these days - "and if you're asking me whether the ups and downs I've experienced over the last few years have made me more mature, I might agree. There again, it's for others to judge. I'm just happy to have some game time behind me, and to be back in the England side."

Andy Robinson, the head coach, might easily have resisted the temptation to fast-track Balshaw into his starting line-up. He might have shifted Josh Lewsey to full-back and played either Ollie Smith or James Simpson-Daniel, two form threequarters, on the wing. But Balshaw's high-voltage performance in last month's second-string international against France, generated as it was on a sodden mudheap of a pitch that appeared specifically designed to compromise his top-of-the-ground style, tipped Robinson towards the bold decision.

Of course, that England A side was prepared by Balshaw's guide and mentor, Brian Ashton - a coach blessed with an unerring eye for, and profound sympathy with, the more creative spirits of the union code. Ashton, who now spends his working week with the national academy, was also behind the great flowering of attacking brilliance that coincided with Balshaw's most productive spell in the white shirt of his country - the opening four matches of the 2001 Six Nations, when England scored at a rate of more than 53 points and seven tries a game.

As one recently retired England captain said not so long ago: "We have the best coach in Europe running the Under-16s. Work that one out." Balshaw might well concur, but that is another story. At least he is back among the élite, after months and years kicking his heels with the hoi polloi. Just for the moment, it is enough.


The rise

Balshaw had the rugby world at his feet in 2001, when he forced his way into the England team and, aged only 21, began scoring tries at will. He got two in only his third start, against Italy at Twickenham, and two more in the next game against the Scots. Another, in the mauling of France, and he was a cert for the summer Lions tour of Australia.

The fall

That is when it all went wrong. Balshaw lost all confidence and form with the Lions, then had a nightmare in Dublin when England lost their 2001 Grand Slam and was dropped by Clive Woodward. Injuries followed but he made it back in time for the World Cup, and even got on in the final. Now at Leeds, after leaving Bath, can he reach the heights of 2001 again?