Delon Armitage: 'I'm glad Quins were caught. They deserve everything they get'

The Brian Viner Interview: As rugby's season starts under the cloud of Bloodgate, the London Irish golden boy speaks about his own days of on-pitch bad behaviour, how he can keep his England place, and why he was too skinny to play for France
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Delon Armitage did not get to wear the No 15 shirt for England without knowing how to deal with a challenge straight from kick-off, so let us see how he deals with its verbal equivalent: with the Guinness Premiership season about to start, do he and his fellow players, even at blameless London Irish, feel a collective duty to repair rugby union's bruised reputation?

"Yeah," he says. "Rugby's taken a whack. We all need to give it a lift."

Was he shocked by the "Bloodgate" scandal? "Very shocked, yeah. I watched the game and I just wonder what would have happened if they [Harlequins] had won. There's no room for that in rugby. But I'm hoping it will be brushed aside now, and people can concentrate on all the good that rugby brings. I'm glad they've been caught, I'm glad they've been punished, and whatever they get they deserve, but I don't see anything like that happening again, so hopefully that's the end of it."

With the stench rising by the day, it is, I venture, more than a little optimistic to expect "the end of it" any time soon. Armitage laughs, uneasily. "I suppose it is," he says. Has he ever come across that kind of premeditated cheating before? "No, never. If a coach asked me to do something like that [bite on a blood capsule to facilitate a tactical substitution]... no way. I've been told to hit certain players hard early on, but it's never gone beyond that."

And what of the counter-allegations coming from Harlequins themselves, the suggestion that far from this being an isolated incident, players at some clubs have been deliberately cut before matches, in case a blood substitution is needed? It is the first Armitage has heard of this particular claim. "I might have to start looking out for that," he says. "But the thing is, I actually hate blood, needles, all that. I'm pretty squeamish." A merry laugh, and a pause, while he considers the seriousness of the topic. "I wouldn't change it [the blood substitution law]," he adds. "I've been off myself with cut eyebrows and stuff. But I'd have the injury examined by a neutral doctor, that's what I'd do."

To his manifest relief, we move on. Pillars of stability in a turbulent sport, London Irish have been tipped for Premiership glory this season. Does Armitage think that probable, or merely possible? "All I know is how tough it was last season to finish where we did [third, followed by a 10-9 defeat by Leicester Tigers in the Grand Final]. To finish in the top four again would be brilliant with such a small squad, but you're right, there's a good spirit. We're not one of the biggest-paying clubs, but whenever it comes to renegotiating contracts, guys want to stay. There must be something in the water down here."

It is an apt figure of speech. We are sitting in the rickety old stand at the club's training ground in suburban Sunbury, watching the rain hammering down. Armitage's own contract is up for renegotiation this season, but he has no ambitions to move, he says. "I've been here since school and I've been through tough times, fighting relegation. Then last year was the best year the club's ever had. So the way things are going here, it'd be silly to want to go anywhere else."

Which brings us to another scourge of the professional game. Unlike most, Armitage does not have an agent at his shoulder, encouraging such silliness. He has one sponsorship deal, with the French clothing manufacturer Eden Park, and that was something he set up himself simply by asking his pal Ugo Monye to have a word with a friend at the company.

"Why give someone 10 per cent to do what I can do myself?" he says, with a smile. In the dog-represents-dog world of top-level sport it is a refreshing sentiment, and I tell him so. "Yeah, well, I have a big trust issue with agents. They say 'I'll get you this, I'll get you that,' but the first one I had, I ended up buying my own boots. And if you work in an office you don't want to supply your own pens, is the way I look at it. You only hear from guys like that when it's coming up to renegotiation time, otherwise they're not interested in you. I get lots of calls now from [prospective] agents but I think, 'Where were you before I played for England? And where will you be when I stop playing for England?' But some of the boys have good agents, who look after them when they stop playing altogether. That's what I'd be looking for. For now, I'm happy with my situation. Toby Booth was assistant academy manager when I first came here, and now he's head coach. He looks after me."

So does the backs coach Mike Catt, whom Armitage credits for his rise into the international ranks. "He always has time, for kicking practice, advice, anything. If I were to ring him now, he'd say, 'I'll be there in 10 minutes'. Eighteen months ago there was Mike Brown, Olly Morgan, Ben Foden, all ahead of me [in the running for the England full-back slot], and all younger than me. I kind of gave up on international rugby but Mike Catt believed in me. He said, 'I think you're going to play for England', and we spent ages out there, just him and me, kicking, high-ball catching, one on one. So when I got the opportunity, I was ready."

And how. Armitage was man of the match on his debut, a month or so before his 25th birthday, against the Pacific Islanders last November. And his performances in the subsequent defeats by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand offered the team manager, Martin Johnson, a glimmer of satisfaction in the autumn murk. He then scored three notable tries in the Six Nations campaign, yet he feels that the sweet charioteers still haven't seen the best of him. "I haven't got involved like I do for my club. I've done a professional job, but there's another counter-attacking game I haven't shown yet at the highest level."

The highest level, nonetheless, is where he feels he belongs. "I don't want to lose that shirt. But it's back to zero this weekend. Anyone can play full-back for England, and if I don't get back to international standard, it won't be me. If it is me, I just hope we do better this autumn than last."

The 42-6 savaging by South Africa at Twickenham hit him harder than most, not least because he spent his formative rugby years in France, where home defeats were considered a matter of the utmost shame. He was 12 when his stepfather, John Armitage, landed a job in IT on the Côte d'Azure, and he and his older brother Bevon (now with Doncaster Knights) enlisted at Racing Club de Nice.

For a kid who only four years earlier had been uprooted from Trinidad to England, it was the toughest of sporting environments. He was teased for his lack of French, and watched, wide-eyed, when the forwards were led into the showers before matches and emerged with blood streaming down their faces, having been encouraged to headbutt each other as part of the psyching-up process. These weren't big hairy men, either, but boys of 15.

Before long, though, Armitage was comfortable with both the language and with French rugby culture. "If we were getting beaten at home, we'd do anything to stop the game," he recalls. "And we'd never pick our best teams to play away. The big guys play away, the fancy guys play at home, because they're the games that have to be won. The French have been doing that until recently even in the Heineken Cup."

His own game prospered in Nice, to the extent that he was selected for the French Under-16s XV in a friendly against Spain. He still has the shirt, as a reminder that his rugby life could have turned out very differently. But soon afterwards one of the coaches told him that he was too small and skinny to succeed. Which made his try in the 34-10 defeat of France at Twickenham this year particularly satisfying. "A few of the French players told me they were glad I had achieved what I had. I won't use the exact words they used about their coaches, but [Yannick] Nyanga was another one rejected at the same time as me, and I don't know many caps he's got now."

Disgruntled at being told he was "trop maigre", Armitage briefly turned his back on the game, but once the family were back in the UK he joined Richmond and was duly spotted by Irish. "I was lucky," he says, "in that the right person saw me at the right time. I have so many friends who could have made it but didn't perform on the day they needed to. But it's not just about having luck at the right time. Sometimes disappointments can come at the right time. Not being picked for the Lions this year knocked me off my pedestal a bit, and I think that will make me grow as a player."

Fatherhood has made him grow too, he adds. He has a son aged two and an 11-week-old daughter, and before their arrival he says, "I was a loose cannon, sometimes not turning up to training and that, and a bit of a hooligan on the pitch. That changed everything."

What really changed everything, though, was the chance encounter and subsequent romance in the Caribbean 20 years or so ago, between holidaymaker John Armitage and Verna, a spirited mother of five sons whose lives seemed firmly rooted in Pepper Village, Trinidad. "It was the summer when we came over, and probably the hottest I've ever known it in England, so I thought it was no different to home. By the end of September, though, I was crying because I was so cold."

He chuckles at the memory, and muses how different his life might have been. "In Trinidad I didn't know about anywhere except America. Athletics and cricket were my sports and Brian Lara was my hero."

Maybe, if they'd stayed, one or more of the boys might have played cricket for Trinidad. As it was, they were introduced to John Armitage's first sporting love, with a spectacular outcome in this year's Six Nations match against Italy, as John and Verna watched Delon and his younger sibling Steffon become the first set of brothers since the Underwoods in 1995 to play rugby for England. And it might not end there; 17-year-old Guy is pretty useful too, so there might one day be three Armitages wearing England shirts, a positive image to hold at the end of English rugby's summer of embarrassment. Delon Armitage is an ambassador for fashion label Eden Park.

For more information on Eden Park's autumn/winter collection, go to www.eden-park.com

Tonight's game: Sale v Gloucester

Ben Cohen could hardly have chosen a more testing return to the Premiership at Edgeley Park this evening. His new side, Sale, start the new season against champions Leicester.

The 30-year-old spent the last two seasons in France with Brive, although he has not played in a competitive game in six months.

The Tigers will be keen to expose any rust on his, and the Sharks', behalf. Anthony Allen, their midfield recruit from Gloucester, and the former Wasps fly-half Jeremy Staunton make debuts, while captain Geordan Murphy has won a fitness race to start.

Sale's coach Kingsley Jones appreciates the size of his team's task. "This is probably the toughest challenge we could have expected."

Starting tonight, top-flight clubs can name eight replacements, with two being specialist props, while a team responsible for uncontested scrums will be reduced to 14 men. Moves are under way to allow opposition team doctors to check blood wounds in the wake of the Bloodgate scandal.

James Corrigan

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