Deacon the disciple ready to follow the Johnson way

Leicester's second-row forward has a tough act to emulate on his England debut against Samoa, but tells Paul Newman he is equal to the challenge
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Louis Deacon admits that he "wasn't the best pupil at school academically", but when Andy Robinson asked the Leicester forward a question on Tuesday night he knew there was only one answer.

"I haven't played for about six weeks because of an ankle injury and Andy asked me whether I'd be comfortable making my England debut in those circumstances," Deacon said. "I said I was OK about it. I wasn't exactly going to say no, was I?" Deacon, one of five changes in the England head coach's team to play Samoa at Twickenham tomorrow, takes the place of Danny Grewcock in the second row. While there is, in part, an experimental look to Robinson's line-up, nobody is doubting Deacon's credentials. At 6ft 6in tall and weighing more than 18st, he has all the necessary physical attributes. Moreover, his flourishing form at club and representative level has made the 25-year-old one of the best forward prospects in the country.

There has been an inevitability about Deacon's international progress. A former England Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21 player, he became a member of the national élite player squad two years ago. Having made one false start with the England A team - selected for his first cap against France in Limoges three years ago, he was forced to withdraw on the morning of the game through illness - he went on to become one of the biggest successes of the team's Churchill Cup triumph this summer.

Robinson selected Deacon in his 30-man party for the autumn internationals and named him as a replacement for the matches against Australia and New Zealand, although he never made it on to the pitch.

"I was very happy to get on the bench, but I've spent two matches sitting there waiting to make my debut and I inevitably got a bit nervous," Deacon admitted during a break from training at England's Bagshot headquarters this week.

"I have to admit that I wasn't totally surprised at being picked in the team for this weekend. I thought Andy Robinson might make a few changes. Having spent the first two internationals on the bench, I'd been hoping that I would be one of them."

While Robinson clearly sees tomorrow as a chance to explore his options, Deacon dismisses any idea that the Samoans will provide less of a challenge than the All Blacks last weekend. "In terms of physicality they certainly won't be," Deacon said. "When you look at the way some of those guys tackle I think we have a pretty tough task ahead of us." Deacon is well accustomed to dealing with the comparisons which are inevitably made between himself and the greatest product of the Leicester second-row forward production line. He began his rugby career at the age of 10 at the same club as Martin Johnson, Wigston, and has taken inspiration from the example of England's World Cup-winning captain.

"As a young guy on the terraces watching the Tigers play I always looked up to Martin," Deacon said. "To go on to play alongside him was a great experience. He led by example. Particularly when I was young and just establishing myself he was very good at helping me with any pre-match nerves. He'd tell me not to worry and just play my own game."

The earliest influence on Deacon's career was his father, who also played for Wigston. (Deacon Snr, incidentally, had wanted to christen him "Lewis", while "Louis" was his mother's preference. "They compromised by going with the French spelling but the English pronunciation," he said.) Deacon moved to the Syston club at the age of 13 before joining the Leicester academy when he left Ratcliffe College at 16. He worked his way through the club's youth, Under-21 and extras teams before making his debut as a replacement at Cardiff at the age of 19 in August 2000.

It was while the likes of Johnson and Ben Kay were on World Cup duty in the first half of the 2003-04 season that Deacon established himself as a first-team regular. His colleagues voted him player of the year that season.

"John Wells, the head coach, gave me my opportunity to run the line-out and really stake my claim and I played just about every game I could that season," Deacon said. "The following season all the big names came back but I just seemed to keep my place." He has already captained Leicester and is proud to point out that in his first match leading the side he scored a try as a young team, showing 13 changes from the previous week's win over Bath at Welford Road, won 28-20 at Leeds two months ago. Leeds had been a bogey side for Leicester under Johnson, the Tigers having taken just one point from their four previous visits to Headingley.

Deacon, understandably, tries to play down the comparisons with Johnson. "A lot of people compare me to Martin and it's a great privilege to be compared to someone of his stature," he said. "If I could achieve half of what he achieved in terms of winning trophies like World Cups, Heineken Cups and championships then my career would be a huge success."