Charlie Hodgson has a furrowed brow and a faintly anxious look at the best of times, but on the day I meet him at Pennyhill Park, the salubrious hotel near Bagshot which doubles as the England rugby union team's training camp, the 25-year-old Yorkshireman's brow is even more furrowed, the look even more anxious, than usual.
Hodgson has been quoted in one of the day's national newspapers as saying that Twickenham is a "weird" place, that the true fans aren't getting tickets, and that the people who do go "are often drinking, watching in silence, and then becoming abusive when one or two things go wrong". He even said that he prefers playing at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
So much for Twickenham's nickname in England rugby circles as HQ; here's a soldier who prefers to unpack his kit bag on foreign fields. At any rate, it's pretty candid stuff from a fly-half who is in the form of his life for Sale and is at the heart of Andy Robinson's strategy as the coach plans the opening match in England's Six Nations campaign, tomorrow against Wales. At home.
We take our seats and I ask him, predictably enough, whether he now expects a hostile reception from the Twickenham crowd on Saturday. He sighs. "Hopefully, they won't take it the wrong way. What I said was purely based on one game against France [the 18-17 defeat last February, in which he missed a drop goal and three penalties]. At the time things weren't going well for me, and it wasn't just that I was getting stick from the crowd, it was also the hammering I got from the press. It was a collective thing, and those comments I made were off the cuff. I really hope that I'll be received well this weekend against Wales. The atmosphere at Twickenham in the autumn series was unbelievable, and I hope it will be the same."
This is an understandable stab at damage limitation, although, unless Hodgson was misquoted, his criticism of the Twickenham crowd was intended more generically than that. And actually, he was dead right to speak his mind. As was pointed out in these pages yesterday by my knowledgeable colleague Alan Watkins, a sulky silence does descend on Twickers when things are going against England, an unknown phenomenon in Cardiff. It is, sometimes, a weird place.
Moreover, it's high time that an England player echoed Roy Keane's attack on the prawn sandwich munchers at Old Trafford; there's far too much corporate carousing at Twickenham by people who wouldn't dream of buying their own tickets and don't necessarily appreciate what's unfolding in front of them.
Even so, one might expect rugby crowds not to descend to the levels of some football fans by loudly making scapegoats of their own players, but as Watkins pointed out, that's nothing new either at Twickenham, where Mike Catt, among others, regularly got it in the neck as well.
Still, whether or not things are the same as always in the West Stand tomorrow, in Hodgson's mind, everything's changed. "Even if I get stick from the crowd now, I can shrug it off," he says. "I'm a lot stronger mentally after that experience in last year's Six Nations. And I can shrug off my own mistakes in games quite easily now, because I know rugby's a game and things like that happen. I've become more relaxed about it, and that has helped my performance."
But how has he become more relaxed? With a dose of sports psychology? A visit to Eileen Drewery? A course of acupuncture? Hypnotism?
"No, it just stemmed from trying to prove people wrong, that I wasn't mentally weak, that's where it came from."
Of course, even if Hodgson proves himself to be a combination of Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela in the mental fortitude department, there is one thing he will never be, and that is Jonny Wilkinson. He knows as well as anyone that it was for not being Jonny that the Twickenham crowd resented him most, and when his kicking went awry, that resentment was unleashed. I ask him just how frustrating it is for him when the J-word comes up in interviews, which both of us recognise as my cack-handed way of bringing up the J-word.
A faint smile. "I'm not bothered about it at all. I'm used to it. If I'm being talked about, then Jonny's name will come up. It's not something I dwell on. But it will be interesting to see what happens. The debate will really start once he's back fit and playing well again, and for me that will be a good sign as to how far I've come as a player, to see whether they still pick me."
He knows already that he has come a great distance as a player. He hadn't even entertained the idea of a professional career until Sale spotted his potential during his first year at Durham University, and invited him to train with them. He dazzled them with his "uncanny ability to control a game, and to make the fellows outside him look fantastic," in the words of one member of the coaching staff, and much to Hodgson's amazement, a contract was offered.
"To general disapproval at Durham, he duly gave up his sports science degree and signed on the dotted line. It quickly became apparent that he had done the right thing.
However, despite his wonderfully auspicious international debut in 2001, when he scored a record 44 points against Romania, there have since been rather more lows than highs, including the cruciate ligament injury that kept him out of the last World Cup, and his part - exaggerated though it was - in last year's disastrous Six Nations campaign.
But all the while Hodgson's fluency of passing, married to a wondrous creative instinct, has got more and more impressive. It is true that he lacks some of the sheer phsyical presence that Wilkinson brings to No 10, but no less true that even a fit Wilkinson could do with some of Hodgson's subtlety and guile, which served him so well playing for the midweek British and Irish Lions last summer. He returned from the tour of New Zealand as one of the few Lions with a much-enhanced reputation, and sees that as a crucial element in what might, only slightly melodramatically, be called his rehabilitation.
"I really wasn't expecting to be involved in the Lions squad after what happened in the Six Nations, and the fact that I was there felt like a massive bonus. I was involved in six games, I started four and was on the bench for two, and that was far greater than anything I'd expected. It went better than I could ever have imagined, and seeing myself performing out of my comfort zone in an environment like that gave me a lot of self-belief , which I've taken on from there."
I wonder how much the Lions experience might affect tomorrow's match, in the sense that some England players might now be a little more aware of the idiosyncrasies of some Welsh players, and vice versa?
"Well, personally speaking I didn't work with them too much, being in the midweek team, but guys like Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones, Gareth Thomas, I certainly noticed how relaxed they are, that they don't let things affect them. They don't put pressure on themselves to perform because they know they're there on merit. They just go out there wanting to express and enjoy themselves, and that was how they played last year for Wales."
It is Wales, in fact, that Hodgson believes England must now emulate. "They have set the standards in how to play as a team, and that's what we have to do. I wouldn't want to give too much away about how we've been preparing, but we're trying to work on the backs attacking more. We have such a commanding pack but the backs need to do something with the ball as well, and ask questions of the opposing defence rather than leave it to the forwards. Hopefully, we have learnt from what went on in the autumn [when the English backs were so often at sixes and sevens, or more accurately at 12s and 13s] and have put things right. I think we'll see that this weekend."
Hodgson no longer keeps to himself and the occasional journalist his convictions about how England should play. When he first joined the squad both Robinson and Clive Woodward told him that he should speak out a little more, that he seemed altogether too introspective. It wasn't easy for him to shed an essentially quiet demeanour but he took the advice to heart, and is now a considerable vocal presence both in training sessions and on the field of play. And in the corridors of Pennyhill Park, I notice, he banters with the best of them.
"There's a great spirit in this squad. All the players are good at socialising together, and there are no egos, that's the main thing. It's just a lot of grounded, down-to-earth blokes, and if anyone does show an ego they quickly get knocked down. That's a sign of a happy environment."
He has even bonded with the England backs coach, Joe Lydon, not a state of affairs he anticipated as a child. Hodgson grew up as an ardent rugby league enthusiast, a diehard Halifax fan, and back then there was nobody he disliked more than Lydon.
"I remember watching him drop a goal from 40 metres for Wigan to put Halifax out of the Cup one year, and I was absolutely gutted. I really hated him after that. But at the same time I learnt a lot from watching that Wigan team, guys like Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley, and now it's great to be working with Joe. He's a good bloke to be around, and he's taught me a lot about lines of run and timing of pass."
An even more significant influence on his game is the irrepressible Sale coach Philippe Saint André. "I give Philippe a lot of credit. He's helped my reading of plays, and with lots of little details that have helped my overall game. He's given me a better game understanding, what to do in certain situations, when to kick for goal, when not to, how to be more clinical. I've enjoyed working with him and I hope he's enjoyed working with me."
As much as anyone, though, it is Hodgson's girlfriend Daisy, an auctioneer whom he first met at school in Bradford, that he credits with his growth as a rugby player. "She's been through so much with me, since I've been playing professionally. She's been through all my highs and lows, and she knows how to take me and what to say in certain situations. She never has a bad word to say, and knowing that I have her there, that she's always there for me, as well as the rest of my family, of course, that's been great for me."
As we part, and he walks off down the corridor, it occurs to me that in his quiet way he is a rare and courageous animal: a tough international rugby player who is quite happy to talk about his emotional sensitivity and the love of a good woman.
I hope that he is embraced by Twickenham tomorrow, not barracked, and that he keeps the J-word off everybody's lips.Reuse content