Carlos shows Jonny how to enjoy himself

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A fascinating juxtaposition presents itself this afternoon, when Newcastle hove into view at Northampton. On one side a fly-half held dear to the bosom of his adoring public, not least because he started all but two of his club's matches last season, and beloved of the press and the partisan alike. And on the other, Jonny Wilkinson.

Carlos Spencer - for they are his shoulders around which the aforementioned garlands have fallen - takes it all in his stride. "The only person who buys newspapers in my house is my wife, and that's when we have fish and chips." OK, fine, moving swiftly on... If he doesn't read the reviews, surely Spencer is aware that the "When the Saints go marching in" brigade love him to bits? Saints' supporters forgave an uncertain settling-in period (last season's opening-day result: Leicester 32 Northampton 0) and at length they gloried in the unveiling of all Spencer's bounteous talents.

"Aw, yeah, mate," he says, with a loud emphasis on the "yeah" which, in Carlos-speak, shows he means it. "Seeing the people happy builds your confidence. The last thing I'd want to do was be here and not be accepted."

Paul Grayson, Northampton's head coach and an England fly-half as recently as 2004, summed it up after Spencer, against Saracens last February, collected an awkward pass facing his own goal, kicked the ball over his head, span around through 180 degrees and gathered it on the bounce. "I've tried some of the things Carlos pulled off," said Grayson, "but only in my back garden."

It was, Spencer agrees, one of the good days, most importantly because the team did well and enjoyed themselves. He adds: "I appreciate it that 'Grase' has let me play my natural game. It's not something you can teach, to be honest. That's just the way I am, the way I've always liked to play the game. You either grow up with it and do it throughout your whole rugby career, or you don't. It's cheekiness, really, and having the guts to do it. I've always been a cheeky bugger. I don't care what people think if it doesn't come off."

It's all a bit rum from an English point of view: poor Wilkinson struggling with his injuries, while his one-time Test opponent Spencer arrived from New Zealand 12 months ago and, with his cockatoo haircut and dancing feet, acquired hero status in the East Midlands.

Not only did Spencer give value for money - even at a reported £250,000 per annum - by featuring in 31 of Northampton's 33 fixtures and helping them to sixth in the Premiership and qualification for the Heineken Cup. But his unique approach to the fly-half's game also shook up the towns and shires where they were used - at least in Kiwi lore - to seeing the ball punted to the corner with 14 fellows chasing after it. It was like the opening of Pandora's box on a fortnightly basis.

As it happens, the Premiership fixtures have fallen so that Spencer meets Wilkinson today, then Sale's Charlie Hodgson next week and, successively, England's other leading fly-halves of the moment: Olly Barkley, Ryan Lamb and Andy Goode. Not one of them, it is fair to say, has a reputation for passing through his legs or chipping over his own head or kneeing ahead instead of using the boot (this last tactic, Spencer insists, works well because the ball tends to stand up on its end as a result).

So does Spencer think English fly-halves are too inhibited? "They're probably a bit worried about what people say. And we're a little more expansive in New Zealand. We have the weather and the conditions to do it and the players around us to do it. There's a lot of skilled individuals in New Zealand, really. Over here they're more field-position orientated."

It's more damnation than faint praise, and Spencer is none too sure Hodgson or Wilkinson would "make it" if they were landed in the No 10 jersey at, say, Auckland or Canterbury. He does, though, welcome the sight of Wilkinson starting his 10th Premiership campaign. "Hopefully he will last through the whole season and get back in the England side. They'll be better for it. He's a world-class player."

Still, there are points to play for, and whether England need him or not, Wilkinson will be on trial just as soon as Northampton's flankers hear the first whistle. "We've got our gameplan," says Spencer. "You'll have to wait and see if we run down Jonny's channel or not."