There is bad luck, there is gross misfortune, and there is the stuff David Strettle has been putting up with for the last year of his sporting life. Attila the Hun would feel sorry for him. In South Africa 12 months ago, a viral infection, so mysterious that the medical community are still wondering what caused it, ripped through the England camp and put the Harlequins wing in the high dependency unit of a Johannesburg hospital. "He vomited for 18 hours," said the team doctor, Simon Kemp. "His condition was some way short of critical, but I've never seen a fit rugby player of 24 more ill than David."
Having recovered from what a layman might describe as gastroenteritis with knobs on, he immediately contracted Beckhamitis – that is to say, orthopaedic trouble of the metatarsal variety. He broke the most celebrated bone in the long history of the human foot during training for the 2007 World Cup, and ended up missing the tournament. Back he came for the 2008 Six Nations, and bust it again, this time after running rings round Wales in the first 10 minutes of a match that would set the tone for the entire championship. Bad luck? The day he sets up in business as an undertaker, people will stop dying.
"It's been a rough spell," he agreed yesterday. "Actually, I didn't feel too sorry for myself until the injury in the Wales game. In South Africa, I had a funny turn and fell ill. It happens. Even when I missed the World Cup, I felt able to look on the bright side. But when I broke down so early in the Wales game – well, that was the first time I really asked myself what the hell I'd done to deserve it all. I'm pleased to be back, obviously. It's no fun being a spare part."
A fair few fully fit England players have found themselves in spare-part mode in New Zealand over the last decade. On the "tour of hell" in 1998, the All Blacks put 104 points past the "old country" in two grisly Test matches; in 2004, the aggregate score over 160 minutes of one-sided rugby was 72-15 to the hosts. If, during his long days of incapacitation, Strettle had been asked to identify the least forgiving environment in which to make an international return, he would probably have come up with the words "Eden" and "Park". This weekend, he will discover just how intimidating the largest of this country's union strongholds can be.
"This is a challenge, definitely," he acknowledged. "The All Blacks are respected for a reason. The question is this: do I show my respect by rocking back on my heels and saying 'God, I'm playing against the best in the business', or do I show it by playing with 100 per cent commitment and matching them blow for blow? Yes, they have an aura about them, and they produce an extraordinary amount of outstanding talent. For all I know, they have 100 of the best players in the world. Only 15 of them can be on the field at any one time, though. It's still a game between teams of equal numbers.
"I'm told that apart from the World Cup in 2011, when we may or may not play against the New Zealanders, we won't be coming back here for at least six years. We should be aware of that this weekend and say to ourselves: 'We may never get another shot at this, so let's make it special.' I don't suppose there are many tougher places to play rugby, but I think we're equipped to fight fire with fire. I spoke to Andrew Mehrtens [the most celebrated All Black outside-half of his generation] when he was at Quins, and he said Premiership rugby was more physical than anything played down here. The Sale boys tell me that Luke McAlister [another New Zealand midfielder of repute] says the same thing. I think we can build on that, and go into the game with some confidence."
This time last year in Springbok country, Strettle was one of the few members of a third-string England party with a realistic chance of making it to the World Cup. The current squad is much stronger; indeed, it might be argued that 10 or more first-choice players will take the field on Saturday. Has this salient fact registered with the tourists?
"Yes, I think so," Strettle replied. "There was a strange feeling amongst us down in South Africa. There were a lot of experienced players on that trip – it certainly wasn't a young squad – but when it came to energy and self-belief, I'm not sure there was too much around. Sometimes, it's good to have young, inexperienced players in the mix; people who are fresh to Test rugby and desperate to prove they belong at that level. In this squad, the balance is a good one. We have some people who have been knocking about for a long time now, and some people who are new to the game at this level."
Two of those in the latter category – the uncapped London Irish wing Topsy Ojo and the twice-capped Harlequins full-back Mike Brown – will be alongside Strettle in the back three, by some distance the greenest of the English units. (Strettle is a leathery old veteran by comparison, having won the grand total of five caps since making his debut against Ireland at Croke Park in the early spring of last year). Given that New Zealand boast some stellar individuals in the wide positions, including Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu, is Strettle entirely sure that inexperience is a good thing?
"When Brian Ashton threw me into the side at Croke Park, he impressed on me the importance of playing my own game in the way I'd play it if I were turning out in a Premiership match for Quins," he responded. "I took that on board and ended up scoring a try. I hope Topsy is given that same advice, and that he follows it. As for Mike, it's an advantage having two players from the same club unit. There's a lot of understanding between us and I think that will help us cope.
"There's no doubt that Sivivatu and the rest are major threats, but as someone once said: 'Show me a try-scoring wing and I'll show you a couple of good centres.' The All Blacks score heavily because they have a midfield capable of creating opportunities for the strike runners. We have a good, creative midfield of our own, players who exercise good judgement and know how to distinguish between the things that are on and the things that aren't. I'd like to think we'll get some opportunities too."
In Strettle's book, England will commit the most cardinal of sins if they sit back and let the All Blacks play. "You just can't do it," he said. "The great sides in any sport – Manchester United, say, or the Wigan rugby league team of 20 years ago – never let up against opponents who go in for damage limitation. Respect is a good thing, and the All Blacks have earned respect. But it's possible to have too much respect, and that's the trap we must avoid."
Cohen bothers England's troubled efforts to replace their World Cup-winning wing
Ben Cohen was nobody's idea of a rugby genius, but he was quick, strong, physical and extremely direct. What was more, he was perfectly suited to the role Clive Woodward created for him as England built towards the 2003 World Cup. Indeed, Cohen would make an invaluable, if unplanned, contribution in the final by accidentally kicking Stephen Larkham in the face, thereby forcing the brilliant Wallaby outside-half to spend half the match under treatment.
Josh Lewsey, who alternated between right wing and full-back in that momentous game, went closer than most to nailing down a place as Cohen's long-term successor, but successive coaches' inability to identify his optimum position ultimately cost him dear. James Simpson-Daniel, the injury-prone Gloucester player, has had his opportunities and will get more, while Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto, both natural right wings, filled the shirt during last year's World Cup defence.
This year, a more exotic Gloucester player, the Tongan-born Lesley Vainikolo, was given a prolonged opportunity – an opportunity he spurned. Strettle is the latest best hope, although the lightning-fast Tom Varndell of Leicester will mount a significant challenge.
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