French test is music to Worsley's ears
Wasps No 6 is relishing today's trip to the Toulouse lair. He tells Hugh Godwin that one day he may be playing abroad for good
Sunday 10 October 2010
The news that Sale's loosehead prop and some-time balladeer, Andrew Sheridan, has recorded an album of self-penned songs went down well with Joe Worsley. "Music stimulates you, it keeps you going," said the Wasps flanker, who happens to be a classically trained piano player. "You get a lot of musical sportsmen because you can't do physically demanding stuff around your sport when you've got to rest." How about a double act with fellow England squad member Sheridan? "Sherry and Joe? Yeah, I could see that. We could make it that you've got to weigh over 110kg to get in the band."
It was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, although you cannot be certain these days, with rugby players stepping on to the celebrity dance floor (Gavin Henson) or belting out jazz on TV talent shows (Matt Stevens). Worsley's woe is that his beloved piano has been in storage all year while builders are in at his new home. The 6ft 5in back-rower has been obliged to visit the school where his wife teaches to tinkle the ivories in his spare time. "I'd given it up for a few years when I started professional sport, then when I got back interested, it was bluesy stuff – just mucking around with chords, ad-libbing, come up with a melody, build a song."
Most pundits predict the music will stop for Worsley and Wasps when they head this afternoon into the intimidating lair of Toulouse, the champions of Europe. Down in the south of France, the supporters dance to brass bands, and it is not God Save The Queen they are singing. Wasps' Premiership form is nothing to send a postcard home about, and when you throw in the refereeing directives which are a perfect fit for Toulouse's fast-paced, handling game – and a salary budget two or three times that of Wasps – the odds on an away win are as long as Richard Clayderman having the Christmas No 1. Worsley, a one-club man since he joined Wasps aged 16, will try to upset those odds.
"Guy Novès [the long-serving Toulouse head coach] has had a philosophy there as long as I can remember of a style which I enjoy playing against," he said. "Toulouse have always been an affluent club, not short of money when it comes to buying players and training facilities. Financially the two clubs have been on different planes. I heard they have 26 internationals in their Heineken Cup squad. It's phenomenal and we can't compete financially. But on the flipside some of the people involved with Wasps would take less money to be here, because we get treated well and in the past we developed into a team that wins trophies. We're hoping to get back to that."
Famously in 2004, Worsley's tackling pummelled Toulouse's forwards and fly-half into the Twickenham turf when Wasps won the Heineken Cup. He is relishing doing battle again, in a competition Wasps also won in 2007. Since then, a first-choice XV's worth of stars have retired – Lawrence Dallaglio, Raphaël Ibanez et al – or departed to other clubs. Has the underdog lost a bit of its bite? "A lot of people have left. Some went for pastures new or had to retire, it wasn't about money or arguments. It still hasn't settled down again but hopefully it will soon. Of that 2004 team, 12 of us knew each other inside and out. We need a number of people who want to be here for five or six years solid. That's when you're going to have success. It takes time to build. You see it with football clubs, they lose their identity with players moving. Look at Liverpool.
"Wasps are different to Toulouse. We defeated them in 2004 and it was our fitness, our power, our organisation that prevailed, along with some good finishing and Rob Howley chasing down a ball [to steal a try from Clément Poitrenaud] which most people wouldn't. Our defence was the best thing about us. You can play amazing rugby but if your defence isn't up to it, you won't win. That's not to say Toulouse's defence isn't pretty good, even more so since they brought in [France flanker] Thierry Dusautoir, who I've got enormous respect for. If Toulouse start offloading the ball, you're chasing shadows. But the pool stage is its own little tournament, then you start again in the knock-outs. Getting through the pool is sometimes as hard as the rest of it."
The point there is that second place could be good enough, and with the Newport Gwent Dragons and Glasgow to come before the return match with Toulouse, the Wasps draw could have been tougher. The added frisson is that Worsley, with 78 Tests in 11 years behind him, including the 2003 World Cup, is in the England squad who kick off the autumn internationals against the All Blacks in four weeks' time. According to Worsley, the high-profile European matches double as national trials at a time when an eye injury to Bath's Lewis Moody has raised doubts over the most recent captain.
"It's really down to form these days," Worsley said. "It's not like before '03 when Clive [Woodward] had the habit of sticking with the same people – and fair play to him, it worked. The league's so intense these days, you get knocks, your form fluctuates, it's difficult for people to gear up their season just for England any more. Injuries are the biggest reason for that, especially for the back row. When you get an injury-free period, that's when you're flying, but those periods are few and far between, especially when you get older.
"You have a period of no injuries, you hit form and get your shot to play for England and run that as far as you can until... 'boom'... you've gone again, in my case after 40 seconds against New Zealand last autumn. If Lewis is out, it's tough to say who will be picked in the back row. Steffon Armitage is injured. European form especially will go a long way to get you picked for autumn internationals. You've got Tom Rees, Hendre Fourie, or I could play No 7." The music man says this last bit sotto voce; Worsley is more used to playing blind. Though he continued: "The classic openside role is a little bastardised these days."
New Zealand and Australia will bring two of the best practitioners – Richie McCaw and David Pocock – to Twickenham next month. Worsley watched them closely during the Tri Nations. "The way the breakdown's being judged, there are far fewer opportunities to steal like a classic openside. Unless the man with the ball is very isolated, the tackler now can hardly steal the ball. There are ways round it, legally, and Pocock and McCaw did it well. Yeah, the directives should make it easier to play New Zealand. On the flipside they are going to get more quick ball [but] I much prefer these open, flowing games. That wasn't happening in the year and a half when the tackler was allowed to cause mayhem on the ball. I was really annoyed by that."
It is as difficult to imagine the laid-back Worsley annoyed as it is to imagine him wearing a different club jersey to Wasps black. He has turned down approaches from France in the past but that may change. "I want to go and experience rugby abroad but that will be when I've finished with England. At the end of the World Cup I'll have a look at it. When you're 21, getting selected for England is the be-all and end-all. Now I worry about fitness, weights and speed sessions. I back my ability. If I'm fit, I'm good enough to be on that pitch."
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