There were any number of mysteries surrounding England during the autumn international series at Twickenham, ranging from simple selection puzzles – why, in the name of God, would anyone in full possession of his faculties drop the outstanding Tom Rees for the New Zealand game? – to more complex issues of strategy. As it was far from clear that a strategy actually existed, those brave souls seeking the truth of the matter found themselves wrestling with the most mind-boggling conundrum of all.
Given the high degree of confusion, the sudden disappearance of Luke Narraway from the starting line-up caused less comment than might otherwise have been the case. There was a whiff of something odd, even so. The red-rose management reported shortly before the opening match against the Pacific Islands that the Gloucester No 8 was injured, but as senior England figures down the years had been less than frank on questions of fitness – George Smiley himself might have been more inclined to keep the public in the picture – some wondered, not unreasonably, whether the selectors were over-egging a minor hamstring tweak as a means of restoring the in-form Nick Easter, of Harlequins, to the back row of the scrum.
Their dodgy yarn-spinning over Andrew Sheridan's physical condition before the record defeat by South Africa, which would have been hilarious had it not been so pathetic, reinforced this suspicion. So, Luke: give us the real story.
"I was," he confirmed this week, "very definitely injured. It was a hamstring problem, basically, but it was also more than that because it affected a set of nerves that left me with a lot of discomfort in my back. It was one of those really frustrating things: I'd get to within an inch of being fit, only to find the problem flaring up again without warning. By the time South Africa week came around, we all agreed it would be better for me to concentrate on getting some game time with Gloucester."
For Narraway, this was profoundly unfortunate. Drafted into the side by Brian Ashton during last season's Six Nations Championship, he travelled south for the two-Test tour of All Black country in June and, in sharp contrast to the overwhelming majority of his fellow countrymen, performed magnificently, both in Auckland and Christchurch. Together with the high-profile Wasps flankers Tom Rees and James Haskell – "You always get talked about more when you play for a London club," he said with a knowing smirk – the butcher's son from Worcestershire lost nothing to the New Zealanders at the breakdown, even though England were splattered everywhere else. As a consequence, he flew home justifiably confident that he would hold his place for the autumn programme.
Now, he finds himself wondering whether he will make the cut when Martin Johnson names his revamped 32-man "elite player squad" for the 2009 Six Nations in mid-January. Easter, omitted from the original EPS in July but back in the affections of the England forwards coach John Wells well before Narraway twanged his hamstring, performed strongly last month, scoring a try against the Wallabies and standing up to be counted against Richie McCaw, Rodney So'oialo and the rest of the All Black glitterati. As the multi-purpose Haskell can also do a turn at No 8, will there be room for everyone? Er, um.
"It's certainly true to say that I felt good about the way things went in New Zealand, even though we lost both games heavily," Narraway remarked. "To play for your country against the All Blacks? I mean no disrespect to Wales or Ireland or France, but that's the dream, isn't it? It's the thing every rugby-mad kid wishes for the moment he starts playing. I was quite nervous, going up against McCaw and So'oialo, but then I thought: 'Hang on a minute. If I don't do too well against these blokes, I won't be the first to finish second. And anyway, it will be nice to be able to say I tested myself against them.' As it turned out, I came out of those games a lot more confident than I went in.
"What happens now? I haven't a clue. Nick is a good player who plays a different kind of No 8 game to me and offers different things. If Martin comes on the phone and says: 'Luke, this is the way we want to play and we don't really see you fitting into the system', I'll just have to take it on the chin. All I know is this: the way Gloucester play suits my skill-set and, with the big games coming up over the next three weeks or so, in both the Premiership and the Heineken Cup, I have a chance to show a thing or two. If I don't make the squad despite playing well for my club, at least I'll know I couldn't have done any more."
The first of those significant fixtures takes place at the Madejski Stadium in Reading this afternoon, where second-placed Gloucester face the Premiership leaders London Irish. Two footballing sides, playing on a firm footballers' surface with licence to attack from all areas of the pitch? It should suit Narraway's wide-ranging, highly skilled brand of open-field revelry down to the ground. Even if the game closes in on itself, he has the equipment to thrive. Sir Clive Woodward would no doubt call him a "heads-up player", but these days, he gets his head down too, thanks to the insistence of his club coach, Dean Ryan, that he develop a nasty streak to underpin all the nice bits of his act.
"Irish have been threatening to break into whatever the rugby equivalent is of football's 'big four' for some time now," he said. "They're a tight-knit bunch who know their game and they have some quality people working behind the scenes. Everyone rates Toby Booth as a top coach, and in Mike Catt they have one of the brightest rugby players of the last 15 years moving them in the right direction. Am I surprised they are where they are? No, I don't think so. Ask anyone around the Premiership, and they'll tell you it's a tough day out at London Irish.
"But we feel amongst ourselves that this should be our time. There are a lot of people out there saying that we've run out of excuses and that we have to nail a trophy this season. To which I can only point out that the players themselves also feel a title is overdue, that no one who has spent any time at the club wants to go another season without winning something and that the pressure we're putting on ourselves is every bit as great as, and probably greater than, the pressure coming in from outside.
"When we were smashed by Leicester at Twickenham in the Premiership final a couple of seasons ago" – he blanched at the phrase "Tuilagi Day", remembering how the brick-outhouse wing from Samoa single-handedly marmalised the entire Gloucester side – "we consoled ourselves by saying we were a year short of our peak. Unfortunately, we couldn't use that argument last season. I'd say losing to the same opponents in that semi-final in May, in front of our own supporters at Kingsholm, was a career low point for those of us involved. We had all the equipment, all the tools in the toolbox, to win the championship, but we got ahead of ourselves and messed it up. We were in a hell of a state afterwards – not because we knew we would get stuffed in the press, or that Stuart Barnes would be on Sky saying we'd never win anything as long as we lived, but because we'd let ourselves down.
"When we mucked up against Leicester again back in September, it came to a head. Dean was pretty fierce in his criticism – at the time, I even wondered whether he'd had enough – and it dawned on us that what we were doing in big matches wasn't good enough and that we had to take our share of the responsibility, accept our share of the blame. There were a few times when Mike Tindall, as captain, and the other senior players called meetings away from the coaches and said: 'Look, this isn't about them getting it wrong. It's about us getting it wrong.' It was the start of a re-evaluation process that was very thorough, very honest and very important. The way we're playing now is the result of that process."
Gloucester are certainly playing: 10 victories in their last 11 matches spread over three competitions, the last four of them by margins of 20 points or more, tell their own story. They also have a squad to die for, not least in the loose-forward department, where Ryan has access to such contrasting luminaries as Peter Buxton, Gareth Delve, Andy Hazell, Akapusi Qera and Alasdair Strokosch.
It says something for Narraway's recent progress that his first-team place is as secure as anyone's. And he is right about the England business. If he can get a regular run for Gloucester in the face of competition so strong that it may be unprecedented in the annals of English club rugby, international matters will surely take care of themselves.Reuse content