Dawson quietly back in the fold

Ireland and Wales, not a TV studio, are foremost in the mind of England's most-capped scrum-half
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When Matt Dawson peers into his crystal ball he sees a Six Nations that is too close to call. If parting with money was obligatory he would have a punt on Ireland, not that he's being unpatriotic.

When Matt Dawson peers into his crystal ball he sees a Six Nations that is too close to call. If parting with money was obligatory he would have a punt on Ireland, not that he's being unpatriotic.

Mystic Matt is particularly taken with the twin Celtic challenge of Ireland and Wales. "Over the last few years the Irish have built up their squad and their confidence. They beat England at Twickenham last year and this time they have France and England in Dublin, where they can beat anybody. On balance I'd have to make Ireland the favourites. If their forwards get ball their backs can be lethal.

"Wales have been threatening to beat the top sides and they should have beaten the All Blacks in the autumn. The way they play is very difficult to defend against. The opening games are notorious for upsets, and Wales will be a handful in Cardiff."

The greatest thing Dawson has ever seen was not Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal in the World Cup final, or his role in the build-up, but the second-half demolition of France in Paris by New Zealand on their recent tour. "The Kiwis mean business," Dawson said.

And where does that leave the world champions in the pecking order? "If England were to win the Grand Slam it would be one of the greatest ever. The competition will be fierce. I don't know a lot about the new players, but they'll come to the fore sooner rather than later."

If Dawson feels the need to score a few brownie points, he's on target. "It's a different era. Changes are being made, and Andy Robinson has done a brilliant job in a new environment. If there's one man determined enough to make a success out of it it's him. This is not about looking back."

If it's Friday it must be training, but Dawson is spending his lunchtime at Finsbury Square in London, a little oasis of metropolitan green converted into an area for a kicking competition between inflatable posts. It's called "Kicking For An RBS Six Nations Ticket" and hundreds of office workers are queuing up in miserable conditions to give it a go in totally unsuitable footwear.

Dawson's attendance at this event will be well rewarded, but it's not as if he had skipped training with Wasps that morning. No, his watershed appeared to have been reached when he missed a training session with England and was omitted by Robinson for the autumn programme.

It wasn't that he was injured. As a new captain on the BBC's A Question Of Sport (here's a question - when is this antiquated programme going to hang up its boots?) he had other commitments. Lights, camera and action with Sue Barker took precedence over a date with Robinson, and the England coach, presented with an early opportunity to stamp his authority, left Dawson to think about his future. Dawson knew that he was taking a gamble, that somebody could take his place and make the No 9 Red Rose jersey his own. It didn't happen.

Kyran Bracken, who had a prolonged duel with Dawson, retired from Test rugby, which meant that Robinson was not spoilt for choice. Andy Gomarsall has been playing a lot of rugby and seems to have lost something; Harry Ellis relished his confrontation with Dawson in the Leicester-Wasps double-header in the Heineken Cup, but let himself down when everything came flying out the pram against Biarritz.

Suddenly, at 32 and with 65 caps, more than any other England scrum-half, Dawson is back in business. A few weeks ago he was recalled to the England squad, and when Robinson announces his team tomorrow he would be cutting off his nose to spite his face if he doesn't name Dawson, with Ellis on the bench. "I always said I would consider bringing Matt back if I felt he was playing well for his club," Robinson said.

That is, so long as Dawson doesn't become yet another England injury absentee. He attended England's recent get-together with Leeds Rhinos rugby league club at Headingley, but did not take part in the physical stuff because of a calf strain, which also kept him out of Wasps' game with Bath last night.

Dawson joined Wasps last summer after severing a 13-year relationship with Northampton. He had enjoyed a benefit season with the Saints, and many thought he would be a permanent fixture at Franklin's Gardens, but several factors led him to move south. His girlfriend lives in London and he likes the city.

What he didn't like at Northampton was the influx of overseas players under the South African coach Alan Solomons, whose reign, as it turns out, was very short. In one sense Dawson's timing was good; Robert Howley was forced to retire because of a wrist injury. But on the other hand Wasps are not the force they were last season, when they pulled off the magnificent double of Heineken Cup and Zurich Premiership.

For a man who has never been short of offering an opinion, whether it was criticising the Lions management on the 2001 tour of Australia or subjecting referees to a running commentary on the game, Dawson is now giving the impression of a Trappist monk. He will not talk about himself, he will not talk about Northampton or Wasps or the Lions, and he won't utter a word about A Question Of Sport. "I'll talk about the Six Nations and that's it," he said. "I just want to keep my head down and play rugby. I'd like to play a part in the Six Nations, but I'm not expecting anything."

Joe Worsley, the Wasps flanker, says that Dawson has been an excellent signing. "When he was at Northampton he never stopped talking to the ref and that really annoyed me," Worsley said. "It's been interesting this season because I've really got to know him and I've discovered how nice he is. What I like about him as a player is that he always steps up to the plate."

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