Mathew Tait is best remembered for three things: being bullied by Gavin Henson while making his England debut in the Millennium Stadium hothouse at the babe-in-arms age of 18; almost winning a World Cup for his country a couple of years later; and then disappearing off the face of this rugby earth, thereby joining the likes of Andrew Blowers, Clyde Rathbone and Arwel Thomas as players blessed with all the talents except one – a gift for making the most of their gifts.
That’s the thing with memory: as often as not, it tells lies. Tait certainly went within a gnat’s crotchet of putting England within touching distance of a second successive global title when he ripped up the Springboks with a sublime broken-field run in Paris, but the perception that he was reduced to his component parts by Henson during the 2005 Six Nations is even more laughable now than it was then – the union game’s version of an urban myth. Quite why Andy Robinson, the England coach at the time, dropped the newcomer after that match remains a mystery, not least to Robinson himself, who later confessed to the error of his ways.
And the vanishing act? It is only half-true, at best. Tait certainly suffered from outbreaks of anonymity after leaving Newcastle for Sale following that World Cup tournament in France, but most people forget how well he played for England during the 2010 Six Nations.
Had he not been dumped by Martin Johnson and his coaches for the concluding game against France – one of the more bone-headed selection decisions of the modern red-rose era – he might now be among the biggest names in the sport. For a man to waste his talent is sad enough. To have it wasted for him is close to heartbreaking.
The incident exasperates him to this day, and with good reason: after saving England’s backside with a flash of attacking inspiration against Wales and winning the subsequent game against Italy with a second-half try – “He’s the only person in our side who could have scored it,” said Brian Smith, the attack coach, a few days later – Tait was dropped not through any fault of his own, but because France picked the unusually substantial Mathieu Bastareaud in their midfield and Johnson reacted by recalling the slower, more ponderous, but undeniably bigger Mike Tindall. And we all know where that led, don’t we?
“It was tough to take,” Tait said this week, adding that it was “more wounding” than his previous fall under Robinson. “When you think you’re doing most things right, and then suddenly find that you’re not involved… that’s hard. I don’t think I took it personally – coaches base their decisions on what they believe is best for the team – but yes, I felt I’d been left out because of who the French had picked. And that’s not a feeling any player would like.”
Another false perception, another kick in the teeth. Brian Ashton, the former England coach who fast-tracked Tait through the national academy system, always insisted that pound for pound, the Northumbrian was as physically strong as any player in the country. But the Leicester hard-heads in charge of the Test team between 2008 and 2011 wanted a wrecking-ball merchant in the outside centre position, not a creative artist with the look of a choirboy who had left home in search of an evensong service and somehow stumbled into a grunge band instead.
It is, therefore, more than a little ironic that Tait should have chosen to relaunch his career at – you guessed it – Leicester: the meanest son-of-a-gun club in English rugby; a place where training on a Tuesday is infinitely more savage than the match on a Saturday. Was it the brutal competitiveness of the place that attracted him? Did he feel that if he could hack it at Welford Road, he would finally kill off the wounding misconceptions of old?
“First and foremost,” he replied, “I was really flattered by the fact that they were interested in signing me. I wasn’t worried about the work ethic – I think I work as hard as anyone; it’s never been my style to do otherwise – so the chance to join a club who have such a long history of being involved at the business end of big tournaments was attractive. You want to win things as a player, when all’s said and done. So I spoke to Toby Flood and Geoff Parling and Ben Woods – people I’d played with at Newcastle and had made the move to Leicester – and they had nothing but good things to say about the place. It’s a tough environment, certainly, but there are no egos at work here. If you put plenty in, you get something out.”
Right from the start, Leicester saw Tait as a full-back rather than a centre: a natural long-term replacement for Geordan Murphy, the man primarily responsible for stoking the Tigers’ creative fires for longer than anyone in the East Midlands cares to remember. Initially, the grand plan was put on hold: a deep-seated groin problem, following on from the shoulder dislocation he had suffered at Sale, prevented the newcomer making the early impact he craved. Now, he is beginning to look the part. Jeremy Guscott, the prince of red rose centres and a man who knows a thing or three about back-line talent, once predicted that Tait would play many Tests as England’s No 15. Guscott may yet be proved right.
Leicester saw something else, too. “I know Mathew has a reputation for getting down about things,” said Richard Cockerill, the rugby director, after signing Tait from Sale. “I’ll tell you this: if he goes all miserable on me, I’ll stick a tennis ball under his chin and force him to keep it there for a week. That’ll make him hold his head up.”
All this squares with Ashton’s view that if Tait had a problem, it was one of self-esteem. Tait now accepts that this was the case. “I think it was probably fair comment,” he admitted. “I don’t like mistakes and when I made them in the past, I’d beat myself up about it. I think I’m learning to manage it now. Looking back, it was something I needed to get a handle on and didn’t. As I grow older, I’m getting better at taking things with a pinch of salt.”
He is also growing – literally, as well as metaphorically – into the full-back role. “When I was first capped as a kid in ’05, I was playing on the world seven-a-side circuit and weighed about 80kg,” he said.
“I’m 27 now and a good 10kg heavier. I can tell by my waist measurement! There’s always a fine balance in rugby between having big mutes all over the shop and having people who can pass the ball. I’m bigger than I was, but I don’t feel I’ve lost anything because of it.
“And yes, I’m enjoying the No 15 role, although after struggling with two bad injuries back to back, just having the chance to play regular rugby would have made me happy enough. I’ve spent time and felt comfortable in all the outside back positions, but this has given me a different perspective on the game. As a centre, you’re always involved. As a full-back, you have some time to yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from Geordan. He’s probably the best full-back of the Premiership era, so it’s nice being able to pick his brains.”
A run of strong performances in a series of big matches between now and mid-May – not least in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulon in the south of France – could propel Tait back into the England reckoning.
“I’ve heard nothing, although I did receive a phone call from Stuart Lancaster [the England head coach] after Christmas telling me that I wasn’t in any of the squads he was about to announce,” he said. “Actually, I was pleased to receive that call. Stuart didn’t have to contact me, so it was more than I expected.” Can he see a light at the end of the representative tunnel? “I’d love to play for my country again,” he responded, “but the main thing is to perform well for Leicester on a weekly basis. Do that, and the rest takes care of itself, as they say.”
After all the negatives, Tait has many positives ahead of him. His form for Leicester is improving fast – he made an excellent contribution to the big derby win at Northampton last weekend – and he will become a father in July. He is also progressing his après-rugby plans on a number of fronts.
In the long term, he plans to become a commercial pilot, having reluctantly decided that his studies in biomedicine could not be balanced against the demands of life as a professional sportsman. In the short term, he is planning to catch up with his old friend and colleague Jonny Wilkinson after tomorrow’s match on the Côte d’Azur.
“We played a lot of rugby together and we’re still quite close: we probably speak at least once a month,” he said. “I’ll be in touch before the match and I’d like to think we’ll catch up when it’s over.” Not that it will be a terribly rugby-ish kind of catch-up. Wilkinson hardly touches a drop, while Tait still looks young enough to be turned away from the bar. Damn him.