Tait's nose not put out of joint by wounded pride
Succession of injuries has curtailed young star's success but this Tiger is still ready to roar
Leicester Tigers have a team of sports scientists who claim to be able to predict with greater than 50 per cent accuracy when a player is at risk of a soft-tissue injury. It's fascinating work in a highbrow kind of way but somehow the trials of Mathew Tait are easier to comprehend.
"I broke my nose playing against Bath at the start of December," said the some-time England centre currently turning out for Leicester at full-back, "and again in the Treviso game a couple of weeks later. And it had just about healed when I got a smack in the face at Worcester.
"I can wobble it but at least it's straight. Bobby the physio straightened it for me the first time – I walked over to him and said, 'I think my nose is broken'. He clicked it back across and put two tampons up my nose and I was back on."
That's the stuff. Patch up and play the game. Indicative of "that little bit of resilience" that Tait possesses, according to Leicester's director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, who has no problem with the boffins and their GPS machines computing physical forces and metres run and minutes spent on the field, and sometimes suggesting that Tait or a team-mate misses or curtails a practice session. "I'd rather have him playing on a Sunday than broken on a Tuesday," Cockerill explained.
One of the reasons was evident at Worcester's Sixways ground the Friday before last. A few minutes after Tait had shoved some more blood-blotting swabs up his nose – the crack was audible on TV when his face was accidentally struck by the home full-back Chris Pennell's hand – he made a surging run and intuitive pass in the galloping counterattack that led to Leicester's winning try.
Tait had done the same during a brilliant length-of-the-field try begun by Ben Youngs's tapped kick away to Treviso in mid-December. Both contributions exemplified the skill once described with warm admiration by the then England coach Brian Ashton as "an ability to take a pass with such precise timing that he creates the gap he then goes on to exploit".
But Tait has suffered for his art. He joined Leicester in the summer of 2011. The preceding year – his third with Sale after leaving Newcastle, where he had played alongside Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood – was almost a write-off due to a knee injury and a dislocated shoulder. His first season at Leicester was much the same: a groin injury restricted him to three matches.
He does wonder if the workload in his teens – famously, Tait's England debut on the eve of his 19th birthday came with the gift of a Gavin Henson dump-tackle – eventually caught up with him. "Playing top-class rugby at 17, 18, 19, your body is still growing," said Tait. "You're taking all these collisions and maybe you end up with too many miles on the clock too early. I don't know, but I think it might have been something with me. I had an accumulation of back-to-back tours and going into the domestic season after two or three weeks off.
"I went quite a few years without anything and then missed a chunk of time. Maybe the body had had enough. It will be interesting how the current crop fare. GPS has come in now and it's easier for the strength and conditioning people to keep an eye on people's workloads."
Tait reaches out to touch a wooden table as he reflects on his eight appearances so far this season. Cockerill would probably not qualify for Tait's old England squad nickname of "Truffle" (sweet on the outside, soft on the inside), but the coach said of the soon-to-be 27-year-old: "He makes his tackles, he catches the high ball well and his attacking intent is still there. Plus he can play 12, 13, wing and full-back."
And that is fine and understandable, if a little fainter praise than "the future of English rugby", as Mike Catt, now the England attacking skills coach, characterised Tait on the eve of the pair being centre partners against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup final.
"I really haven't thought about England," said Tait, who won his 38th and most recent cap under Martin Johnson in 2010. "There are younger guys than me, playing better than me. I have been really impressed by Elliot Daly [of Wasps]." And then there's Manu Tuilagi, Tait's Leicester clubmate and England's incumbent at No 13.
"Manu is pretty damned good," said Tait. "As he continues to get better and matures he'll certainly be one of the best, if not the best, player in the world. Physically he's got everything, he's still only 21, still learning the game. He's quicker than he looks, he has this physical pres- ence and threat and he's a lot better passer than he's given credit for."
On the aforementioned night in Worcester there was an alleged tip-tackle by Flood that was dismissed last Tuesday, leaving the fly-half free for today's pivotal Heineken Cup match at Ospreys.
"It's going to be very tough, as Ospreys still have a chance as well," said Tait. "Toulouse went there and got well beaten. We were slightly lucky to get a bonus point in the reverse fixture."
It is the kind of tight pool, in other words, that may be won by a nose.
Ospreys v Leicester Tigers is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 3pm
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