Somewhere inside the 20-year-old mind of Anthony Allen, the Gloucester centre who will make his England debut against the All Blacks this weekend in front of the biggest crowd ever to attend a Test match at Twickenham, there is a molecule of self-doubt. There must be. Human nature insists on it. The fact that no one knows where to find this tiny little temperamental flaw - not Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Kings- holm; not Andy Robinson, the national coach; not Allen himself - suggests that on Sunday the best team in the world may also struggle to locate it.
The All Blacks are not renowned for their innate generosity of spirit, and if they detect so much as a smidgen of a weakness in the new boy's competitive make-up they will set about their victim like a pack of hyenas around a carcass. Daniel Carter will ghost his way past him, leaving him holding nothing more substantial than a handful of thin air; Aaron Mauger will string him along like a high-class conman operating a foolproof scam; Jerry Collins will cut him in half with one of his South Sea Specials, and then rub what is left of his nose in the south-west London mud.
Even if Allen holds himself together with his customary aplomb, he will get the treatment. In fact, the better he plays the more "attention" he will receive.
"It is," he conceded yesterday, "a daunting prospect. But at the same time, it's incredibly exciting. Will I be nervous? Yes, I expect so. I'm nervous before every game I play." So is there really no difference between facing the representatives of the greatest rugby nation on earth on a red-letter day for the newly completed Twickenham and turning out against, say, Newcastle on a damp autumn day in the Cotswolds? "I don't know much about the New Zealanders, to be honest with you - I'm hoping to pick up some information from our video sessions over the next couple of days," he replied unshakeably. I suppose you could say that if I know little about them, they'll know even less about me. Which could work to my advantage, thinking about it." There is cool, there is ice-cold, and there is polar. Allen fits into the latter category.
This time last year, he was just another hopeful making his way in the Gloucester academy, along with his good friends Olly Morgan, Jack Adams and Ryan Lamb. Adams was recovering from serious injury at the time, but the others were working themselves to a frazzle trying to catch the eye of Ryan and his colleagues in the coaching hierarchy. After a scratchy run of performances, the three fit youngsters were given their head at Premiership level and promptly set the tournament ablaze with their adventurous running from all points of the compass. Largely through their efforts, the Cherry and Whites qualified for this season's Heineken Cup twice over by finishing fifth in the domestic league - a far better return than had looked likely at Christmas - and winning the European Challenge Cup.
Allen has become a fixture in the starting line-up, yet he has made only 23 senior appearances, four of them off the bench. What is more, his real education in grown-up rugby began only 11 days ago, when he found himself facing Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, the state-of-the-art Irish midfielders, in a big Heineken Cup match in Dublin. D'Arcy ran through the Gloucester boys inside 90 seconds, and treated them to some home truths as he jogged back to the halfway line. Welcome to the big time, sonny.
"Yes, they had a bit to say for themselves," Allen said. "The nice thing was that we put a try past them almost immediately and gave them a few words back. That was very satisfying."
It must have been an eye-opener, even so; after all, O'Driscoll is a once-in-a-lifetime opponent. "It was very demanding, yes. When you find yourself up against people of that class, the things you lose are time and space. Your decisions have to be made very quickly, and they have to be right."
Having played his way into the England frame by impressing at last month's Loughborough University training camps - "I was surprised to be invited, just as I was surprised to break into the Gloucester team," he admitted - and then giving the two celebrated Leinstermen a dose of their own smart-arsery, he needed one last eye-catching performance to force his way into first-cap territory. This, he duly delivered, on a day when Lamb, Adams and, to a slightly lesser extent, Morgan, fell apart under the pressure inflicted by the powerful Agen backs. Allen put two tries past the Frenchmen from the back end of nowhere to keep his outclassed side at the races. Under the circumstances, it was an astonishing effort.
Afterwards, Ryan praised the youngster for his physical resilience, his technical mastery, the depth of his concentration and the maturity of his decision-making. It seems the Big Bad Wolf of English rugby has developed a liking for the lad. Has Allen never fallen out with him, never been told his fortune in some dark corner of Castle Grim? "I make it my business not to fall out with Dean," he said. "I try to stay on his right side."
Gloucester were lucky to sign him. While studying at Millfield School, the world-renowned sporting institution in Somerset from where he won England age-group honours, Allen linked up with Harlequins, where his father managed the under-19 team. The Londoners thought they had an uncut diamond in sweaty palm, but when they slid towards relegation in the spring of 2005, they saw him disappear through their fingers. "My dad's not there either," he said. "He's involved in Hampshire rugby nowadays."
According to Robinson, the newcomer is not backwards in coming forwards on the communication front. "When he first came to us at Loughborough, we were struck by the way he got out there in the middle of it all and drove it forward, the way he commanded it," the coach said yesterday. "Every time we trained up there, he played his part in running things. It was just what we were looking for in terms of our midfield. Add to that the fact that he's the form centre in the country, and you can see why we've picked him. If he goes on the field with the confidence he's shown recently, particularly in difficult games over the last couple of weeks, he'll be fine."
Seriously? Will he really be fine when the All Blacks crouch low to the ground, eyes glaring and tongues shooting venomously from their lips, for the haka - maybe the traditional "ka mate" rendition, maybe the new one that ends with forefingers being drawn stiletto-like across their throats? "I've played them at age-group level a couple of times and I think I've faced both versions," Allen said, calmly. "To be honest, I reckon my mind will be on the game."
School hall of fame: Millfield old boys (and girls) who have made their sporting names
Gareth Edwards (Rugby union, Millfield School 1964-66)
Won 53 caps for Wales at scrum-half and scored one of rugby's most famous tries, for the Barbarians in 1973.
Matt Perry (Rugby union, 1990-95)
A full-back for Bath, he has played for England and the British Lions.
JPR Williams (Rugby union, 1966-67)
Played for Wales at full-back for over a decade, he also excelled at tennis, winning the junior Wimbledon title in 1966.
Simon Jones (Cricket, 1995-97)
Born in Swansea, Jones, a fast bowler, made his England debut against India in 2002.
Mark Foster (Swimming, 1983-86)
Won world, European and Commonwealth titles and held the world 50m butterfly record in 1996.
Mary Rand (Athlete, 1953-58)
Won the long-jump gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.Reuse content