First choice number two is just fine by Regan

England's reserve hooker is looking forward to fighting for a starting place during next month's World Cup in Australia
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The Independent Online

Like most successful sportsmen, Mark Regan has no idea when he is beaten; unlike most successful sportsmen, he is equally mystified when it comes to the prospect of being beaten up. The Leeds hooker enthusiastically embraces what he calls the "hard side of rugby" - once, as a young front-row whipper-snapper at the Bristol club, he told a touring All Black forward of fearsome repute that he "wasn't much cop", adding that he could expect a "nice slap" at the next scrum. The forward was none other than Richard Loe, rugby's answer to Bluebeard, and Regan ended up being threatened by his own terrified colleagues.

He laughs at the memory, just as he laughs when reminded of his England debut against South Africa in 1995. (The Springboks had just won the World Cup, and fielded Toks van der Linde, Tommy Laubscher and the supremely gangster-ish James Dalton at the sharp end of their set-piece. England were smashed in every department bar the tight five, where Regan played magnificently). He even smiles at the thought of last season's red-blooded visit to Bath, one of his old teams. "I tried to give as good as I got, but it wasn't easy," he chuckled. Why so difficult? "Well, there were a lot of them."

The next two months are no laughing matter, however; not even Regan will see the funny side of the World Cup in Australia unless and until he and his countrymen lay hands on the Webb Ellis Cup. This seriousness of approach is intensified by the fact that the demands on the 31-year-old West Countryman are more complex than generally assumed. The principle challenge has less to do with hooking - he is perfectly aware that his chances of starting the big games are slim, given that Steve Thompson of Northampton is busily reinventing the hooker's role and would walk into any World XV with eyes tight shut - than with propping, an art that ranks alongside classical ballet and raku-fired pottery in Regan's sphere of expertise.

If this sounds a trifle odd, given Clive Woodward's repeated insistence that England's campaign must be based wholly around specialists rather than utility players, it is nevertheless the case. Both Regan and the third hooker in the 30-man squad, Dorian West of Leicester, have been training at loose-head, and will play out of position in certain games if the injury situation so dictates. A risk? You could say. By taking only four props to contest a group containing both Uruguay (major scrummagers) and Georgia (seriously major scrummagers), as well as South Africa, for whom the set-piece is nine-tenths of rugby law, Woodward has gambled his shirt.

"It could be a big test," Regan acknowledged. "A bloody big test, actually. I've always played in the front row, right from the start, and I did some propping during my school days. But in a match situation in adult rugby? No, I haven't been there. I understand the way Clive is thinking, though. The World Cup organisers want to avoid uncontested scrums because they're a poor spectacle, but the coaches don't want to limit their options by putting an entire front row on the bench. Clive wants some flexibility, so it's down to the hookers to give him what he needs." To a worrying extent, though, England are doing this blind. Regan has put in a fair bit of time on the scrummaging machine, and propped "live" against a pack of forwards from Rosslyn Park, recruited as training camp cannon-fodder during the summer. But a plan to run him at loose head against Wales in Cardiff last month had to be abandoned for the very worst of reasons. Having performed superbly at hooker for half an hour, he tore ligaments in his left foot and was forced to withdraw before the interval. He has not trained since.

"Even now, I can't work out how the injury happened," he said. "I just thought: 'God, that hurts. I'd better get out of here.' It's given me five weeks of worry, and I'm still wound up about it now. I haven't been able to sit back, relax and think 'Great, I'm going to the World Cup'. All my nervous energy has been spent fretting about getting this thing sorted and doing some proper training. I'm just easing my way back in now, which is a relief. I've been living on a rowing machine for more than a month now - you have to stay fit somehow - and if I have to spend one more minute on it, I'll take a hammer to the bloody thing." Regan has had his knock-backs down the years. He made 13 consecutive England appearances at the start of his international career, earning himself a place on the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. Keith Wood was always going to be the senior hooker, but when the Irishman failed to stay the trip, Regan played brilliantly in a midweek match in Welkom and beat the more favoured Barry Williams to a starting place in the Johannesburg Test. Yet he has started only four of England's 67 matches under Woodward, at a rate of little more than one every two years. Vindication has been a long time coming.

"I was out of the squad for a fair old time, but I always thought I'd be involved again at some point," he said. "I'm just glad it's been recently, what with the Grand Slam and the summer tour and the World Cup looming. And now I'm here, I'm not settling for second best; I want a place in the starting line-up, Thompson or no Thompson. But it's no longer a case of us against us. It's us against them, the rest of the world. We've been through the selection process, the blood and guts stuff on the training field; we've fought the battles between ourselves. It's time to look at the bigger picture, to support each other whatever the personal disappointments.

"Anyway, we should all regard it as an achievement to have made the 30. I would definitely describe this as a bigger accomplishment than being chosen for the Lions in '97. I know the Lions are four countries in one, that they get together only once every four years, that the tours are unique and that the competition for places is intense. But when you talk about intensity, this England thing is up there on its own. There is massive strength in almost every position, far greater than in the rest of Britain and Ireland. This is a high point for me. Something to treasure."

Should Regan feature at the business end of the tournament, he will dedicate his success, at least in part, to the memory of Elwyn Price, the first man to appreciate the rich potential of a raw, rumbustuous teenager ploughing his way through the rucks and mauls of schools rugby in Bristol. "I loved the bloke," Regan said, "and I wish he was still around to see this tournament. He was a hard one, no question, and he taught me a few facts of life as he guided me through the ranks and into the Bristol team. He understood forward play, the rough reality of it, and he made sure I knew what I needed to know in terms of survival." And suddenly, he could hear once again Price's piercing Welsh tones, the signature voice of a thousand matches and training sessions: "That big bastard is pushing you around, Regan. Do something, lad. Do it now!"

There will be times during this World Cup when England's forwards will have to respond to Elwyn's call. The boy from Bristol will be first out of the trenches.