Charlie Hodgson: Memo to England - Jonny can move, I'm the man at No 10

A rare holiday, a league title, a new national set-up, and you-know-who in the wings. Hugh Godwin hears there's lots to play for
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The Independent Online

The Guinness Premiership have acquired a bookmaker as a partner sponsor, on the reasonable assumption that both drinking and betting will appeal to the average rugby supporter. Charlie Hodgson, fly-half and pivotal figure in Sale Sharks' triumphant march to last season's title, is neither a big drinker nor an inveterate gambler. Nor does he have the looks or the lifestyle of a catwalk model. For relaxation he likes to watch television reruns of The Vicar Of Dibley. As a totem for the public relations people, Hodgson is a non-starter.

But as a distributor of the oval ball in the thick traffic of ever more wised-up Premiership def-ences, Hodgson reigns supreme. So what if he has a stubbly chin and a receding hairline? (Like the comedian Harry Hill, he must be finding it takes longer and longer each day to wash his face). Hodgson knifes at the gainline, passes long and short with sometimes a jab, sometimes a swish, and kicks goals from tee and hand with sufficient reliability to make him Sale's first choice in that department. He is a hero to those who know their stuff.

Of course there are question marks. Even Dan Carter, reckoned to be the world's greatest fly-half on current form, has had the odd wobble for the All Blacks, and look at the 14 blokes he has got alongside him. Hodgson has played well for England at Twickenham on many occasions, and did so there for Sale too in the Premiership final last May when they took the more experienced Leicester to the cleaners, 45-20. Aged 25, he has more than a quarter of a century of caps to his name.

Once or twice, however, he has suffered. Most recently there was England's dismal defeat in Paris, in this year's Six Nations. A chastening experience at the Stade de France which, funnily enough, Hodgson shares with Jonny Wilkinson - to whom you just knew, dear reader, a reference would arise sooner rather than later.

Wilkinson's was in 2002: secateured by Serge Betsen and substituted. Hodgson, too, was humblingly hauled off at half-time last March with a sore groin and an anguished look as France beat a stumbling England 31-6. He was left out the following week against Ireland - in favour of Leicester's Andy Goode - and it broke his highly encouraging sequence of 15 starts in the white jersey, garnered while Wilkinson was injured.

"Regardless of whether I was picked or not, I couldn't have played against Ireland," Hodgson says, when I ask him if he was dropped. "It was tough to take from the team's point of view, in Paris. We were really gutted by it all. Then to miss out the week after and not have the chance to put it right... hopefully I will get another chance in an England shirt to show I can do it at the highest level."

That chance, if it comes, will be against Carter's All Blacks in November. As it happened, Hodgson "got back on the wagon", as he likes to call it in a mixed-up metaphor, seven days after the Ireland fixture. Hodgson was a blistering man of the match in Sale's Premiership win away to London Irish. Groin strain, what groin strain?

England-wise, the only other opportunity he has had to redeem himself was passed up in June, when Hodgson sat out the two Tests in Australia. Instead he and his fiancée, Daisy - they are getting married next year - went on holiday to the US, and Charlie fulfilled an ambition of a trip to Alcatraz, "to see if it's like what you see in the films". And is it? "You still see the cell where the guys in Escape from Alcatraz broke out, all the chisel holes and so on. It's quite an eerie place, even on the ferry across. It was on the news at the time that a seven-year-old had swum it. They say it's the currents that kill people, never mind the cold. I wasn't tempted, I'm a rubbish swimmer anyway."

They also took in four days in Las Vegas, but you can forget any juicy analogy between the roulette table and the rugby field. "I give myself a limit and don't spend over it," he says. "The lads at the club call me a skinflint from Yorkshire and that's fine." Later the Halifax-born Hodgson mentions the contemplative hours he spends driving across the Pennines from his Cheshire home to be with Daisy in Ilkley. "And, no, I don't know all the words to 'On Ilkley Moor bah 't hat'," he says. "I'm not that much of a Yorkshire barmpot."

Sale are extremely thankful that Hodgson made the reverse trip one day early in 2000. He was already 19 but as yet undiscovered by the Premiership, and playing for Yorkshire Under-20 away to Lancashire. In attendance was Sale's academy director, James Wade, and a contract was drawn up quicker than you can say "ee by gum". Six years on, Hodgson is signed to Sale only until the end of the season, raising some speculation that he might move. "It's in the hands of my agent and the club," he says in his best football-speak. "I don't envisage myself leaving. I'd never rule out the possibility, but I'm happy where I am."

In truth, Hodgson is part of the furniture at Sale, an integral figure in the club's growth from provincial deadbeats at Heywood Road to thrusting metro-politan heavyweights at Edgeley Park. The ground in Stockport is no Old Trafford - and Sale's owner, Brian Kennedy, may yet decide a groundshare at the City of Manchester Stadium fits the expansionary bill - but its 10,600 capacity was reached several times last season.

A feelgood factor pervades the blue seats - cunningly boosted, so Sale's players say tongue in cheek, by a couple of teasing, crowd-pleasing, last-minute victories. "You have to give credit to Philippe [Saint-André, the director of rugby]," says Hodgson. "Only he could have brought in the French players who gave us our strength in depth.

"We're proud of what we achieved last year but we don't want it to be the only trophy we win. It all starts again at Leicester, and they'll see it as a revenge game, to put things right from the final."

In that final Hodgson gave an all-round performance of quality and control, cross-kicking classically for one of Sale's three tries and making a fabulous break for another. It was a fine follow-up to the Ireland hiatus and his honestly given criticism of the corporate spectators at HQ. "I was delighted. People have their criticisms of me and whether I can do it in the big games. I've always maintained that I'm confident in my own ability."

And since then, has the summer break done him good? Oh, did it do him good. The sheer unalloyed pleasure of not playing rugby, or even thinking about it - that's what the stupidly long season does to our top players.

"I didn't do any rugby at all for three or four weeks, and that in itself is completely different. It's a benefit, to switch off. If you go on a tour you get back and have 10 days off and are then back into training."

After a couple of tries for Hodgson in a friendly win at Biarritz, the questions at Sale's pre-season press call revolved around how he would cope now "that other fellow" - a rugby writer from a national daily dared not even speak Wilkinson's name - is as fit as a fiddle (if, perhaps, that fiddle is a favourite Stradivarius with frayed strings and more than a few miles on the bow).

In a nutshell, Hodgson says the more competition he has for his England place, the better it will make him play. The World Cup - he missed the event in 2003 with a knee injury - is just a year away. He is "excited" about working with England's backs coach, Brian Ashton. "Defences like to see the same things every game. Brian can come up with things in England's attack which will puzzle the opposition."

Ashton is known to favour a left-/right-footed kicking combination, so what about teaming up Hodgson and Wilkinson in England's midfield? "To be honest with you, my position is 10," Hodgson says, flatly ruling out a repeat of his two appearances at inside-centre at the outset of the 2003 Grand Slam. "If they want to accommodate both of us then, from my point of view, he'll have to play 12."

I tell Hodgson that he has a reputation at Sale as a bit of a wag. "A what?" he says. A wag, I say - a joker, someone with a sense of fun (it must be a southern term). "I thought for a moment you meant the football 'wives and girlfriends'," he says. And that's about as close as Hodgson gets to an episode of Footballers' Wives on his trans-Pennine drives, chuckling at Dawn French. Yes, he likes a laugh, though he insists it is not him tormenting Sale's captain, Jason Robinson, with a dastardly practical joke, namely the placing of unbroken eggs inside Robinson's shoes.

"If it was me," says Hodgson, "and he'd asked if it was me, I would have owned up." And that, in essence, is Charlie Hodgson. Maybe not the PR person's dream, but a Yorkshireman who speaks as he finds, and plays it as he sees it.

LIFE & TIMES: From Halifax to Twickenham

NAME: Charles Christopher Hodgson.

BORN: 12 November 1980, Halifax, West Yorkshire.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 10in, 12st 13lb.

POSITION: Fly-half.

CLUB CAREER: Old Brodleians, Durham University, Sale Sharks 2000-current: 122 matches, 1,551pts, 33 tries. Won Guinness Premiership 2006, European Challenge Cup 2005, Parker Pen Shield 2002.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Debut Nov 2001 v Romania; 26 caps, 243 points (6 tries, 42 cons, 40 pens, 3 drops); Lions: 0 Tests, four tour matches.

HIGHLIGHTS: England record 44pts v Romania 2001; Sale player of the year 2005-06.