Dave Attwood: 'You have to fight fire with fire but I'm also trying to add some subtlety'

Lock Dave Attwood, touted as the ‘next Martin Johnson’, talks to Chris Hewett about developing his game and his Gloucester and England hopes
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The Independent Online

The hunt for the new Martin Johnson – Johnson the player, not Johnson the manager – has lasted seven long years, and English rugby spent most of that time searching in all the wrong places.

Not that anyone should rush to judgement: who could have imagined that the national team's next cold-eyed, ruthless, 6ft-plenty second-row enforcer would be found among the tiny number of forwards boasting a degree from a leading university in physics and philosophy? Johnson might have learnt a thing or two about chaos theory during his time in the red-rose engine room, but he was hardly renowned for his grasp of logical positivism.

You will take it from these opening remarks that Dave Attwood, still uncapped if only for the moment, is just a little different. Unlike his most celebrated predecessors in the England pack, he knows what it is to be told he will never be good enough; unlike the big beasts of the recent past, he resigned himself to playing rugby purely for fun and threw himself into his studies. Yet there is something eerily familiar about him, all the same.

"I think we now have a pack to be feared by anyone coming to Kingsholm," says the 23-year-old Bristolian as he considers Gloucester's prospects in the Premiership. "No one should come here expecting to put themselves on the front foot, because we're strong enough to say: 'No, that's not happening, and there's an end to it.'" Johnson rarely expressed such sentiments in public during his playing days at Leicester, but he certainly gave voice to them behind the closed dressing-room door at Welford Road.

Attwood, about to begin his second season at Kingsholm after an inexplicably low-key spell at his hometown club, is 10kg lighter than he was last September – the consequence of a year's non-stop rugby activity that culminated in a wildly successful summer tour with England. He was the pick of the forwards in the two midweek games against the Australian Barbarians, and if he found himself being stretched by the New Zealand Maori as they counter- attacked their way to victory in the last match in Napier, he showed enough to confirm his readiness for Test selection in November, when the three major southern hemisphere nations head for Twickenham.

"That game against the Maori was quite an experience and I enjoyed it more than any other on tour, even though it was the one we lost," he recalls. "For the first time, I played at a place where it seemed everyone in the entire ground wanted us to lose. There were some pockets of English support there, but you'd never have noticed. All week, the people in New Zealand had been incredibly nice to us. Then, the match happened, and it became very apparent how much rugby means to the Maori population. The locals said that whenever the weather in Napier is as calm as a millpond, an earthquake is on its way. And, of course, the weather had been beautiful."

After picking Attwood for the tour on the strength of his fiercely combative displays for Gloucester last term – he started 16 of the 22 Premiership matches and all six pool games in the Heineken Cup, leaving a dent or two on each – Johnson praised the newcomer's new-age skill-set at every opportunity. The manager was not pretending, but he was not telling the whole story either. What really grabbed him was the fact that he recognised something of his young self in Attwood's game: the same no-nonsense approach to the tight forward's chores, the same directness, the same hard streak when dealing with opponents at ruck and line-out. When Attwood was cited on two counts of stamping after the opening tour fixture, was Johnson angry? Quite the opposite. He could be could be seen grinning like a Cheshire cat, and was even happier when his man walked away unpunished on a technicality.

"Rugby has changed a little since Martin's day: a second-row needs to have more to his game than the pure tight forwards of the past because modern union demands that all 15 on the field can throw a dummy when it's needed or make the scoring pass," Attwood says. "But players in my position still need to fight fire with fire, still have to grit their teeth and achieve that physical edge. People like Danny Grewcock have always known what needs to be done. Steve Borthwick too.

"Not that I'm looking to be portrayed in any particular light: I certainly don't want to be cited again and I'm gearing part of my pre-match preparation to working out exactly how I should deal with certain circumstances and developing some subtlety, especially when it comes to the ruck and where I put my feet." It is an admirably Christian approach, but what happens when the red mist descends? "I don't get the red mist often," he replies. "There aren't too many occasions when the shutters come down and I lose five minutes, unless it's on a night out with a bottle of vodka."

By his late teens, Attwood had played his way through the Bristol junior set-up and into the academy, from where some bright spark sent him packing. "They told me they didn't think I'd make it and I thought that was that," he says. He should not have worried himself unduly – his hometown has a long and dishonourable record of sporting misjudgement; indeed, the record-breaking Australian batsman Allan Border was once told by a club coach in the city that he "wouldn't make a Test cricketer as long as he had a hole in his arse" – but he was sufficiently disenchanted to reassess his priorities and set off in pursuit of a BSc.

While studying at Bristol University and playing local rugby for the excellent Dings Crusaders club, he was resummoned to the Memorial Ground for another shot at the professional game. He attracted more interest this time, but still found himself playing fifth fiddle behind the likes of Roy Winters, Robert Sidoli, Mariano Sambucetti and Nathan Budgett. Hence the move to Gloucester, which he describes as "a parting of the Red Sea". He has not looked back since, except to commiserate with those friends he left behind at Bristol, who are now playing second-tier rugby and appear to be in steep decline.

"I really wanted the club to come back up into the Premiership, but now they're stuck in the Championship for a second season and Worcester look so strong, the outlook is very bleak," he says. "The downward spiral is a definite possibility now, which is disheartening. I don't know what will happen to them. When I arrived at Gloucester, I immediately realised how self-sufficient they were in comparison to Bristol. It's a different world when you own your ground and you can generate income throughout the week."

There are four specialist locks in England's elite player squad, from which the teams for the autumn Tests will be drawn, and Attwood is the only one still awaiting a cap. But it was clear by the end of the summer tour that he would be among the chosen few and when Johnson made his announcement in July, it was widely reported that the Gloucester man had ousted Borthwick. In reality, Borthwick lost out to the veteran Wasps forward Simon Shaw, but the narrative of a long-serving national captain being ousted by a rookie continues to play in the media.

"If people want to say I've been picked ahead of a player as good as Steve, it's a tremendous feather in my cap," Attwood says. "I'm not sure it's as cut and dried as some make out, but I'm in the squad and it's an exciting time for me. But I'm also a little apprehensive because this is the start of the storm rather than the end of it. Being picked in the EPS doesn't guarantee me a place in the team, which is what I really want, but by being there, I'm the one providing motivation for others, including Steve, who's already expressed his determination to get back into international rugby. These things work both ways.

"My job now is to work on the parts of my game that came together for me during the summer, to improve my consistency and demonstrate that I can cope with the switch of environment from club to country. That will be the really challenging thing, because even at club level, where you train together every day, cohesion is hard to find. Yes, I want to go to the World Cup next year, but I'm extremely aware that as things stand, I haven't played a single Test. I'm ambitious, but I don't feel I'm a player in a rush."