Flutey more than ready to usurp throne of 'King Carlos'

When it was reported that London Irish's Riki Flutey might take on English nationality, some red rose fans got excited. Those reports were exaggerated writes Chris Hewett, even though the midfielder's skills are not
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It seems just a little premature to describe someone as "the next Carlos Spencer" while the current Carlos Spencer is still striding imperiously across the playing fields of the Guinness Premiership, but the top man at London Irish, the director of rugby Brian Smith, is unshakeable in his belief that Riki Flutey, the Maori midfielder from the north island of New Zealand, can match "King Carlos" every step of the way, while offering a positional flexibility far beyond the capabilities of the older man. King Riki? Royal nomenclature will never be the same again.

Flutey, pound for pound and point for point the outstanding back over the opening four rounds of the Premiership, is a rare beast indeed. At 26, his best years are ahead of him - not something that could fairly be said of most New Zealanders earning their corn in the English game, Spencer included. He can play - and has done so at National Provincial Championship and Super 12 levels - in any of four positions: scrum-half, outside-half, inside-centre, full-back. In addition, he is a 75 per cent goal-kicker with power to add (the former England kicking coach Dave Alred is on his case as we speak). Oh yes, one other thing. He might, just might, decide to reinvent himself as English.

What is that strange wrenching noise, you ask? Why, it's the sound of Andy Robinson, the England coach, attempting to snatch Flutey's hand off. As Smith, who brought his fellow Antipodean to these shores precisely 12 months ago after chasing him for the best part of five years, pointed out this week: "If England are looking to play a left-right kicking midfield, Riki has the footwork, the distribution skills and the all-round game to do the job as a centre. If they suddenly find themselves in need of a more physical player at No 10 ... well, he's a handful there, too."

There is no point denying that the world champions have tied themselves in a knot of Gordianesque complexity over the inside-centre position. Equally, it is blindingly obvious that an English Flutey would untie that knot in an instant. This is no time to throw a party, however. Under qualification rules, he is still two years away from switching nationality on residential grounds, and anyway, he may very well opt to remain a New Zealander. The flurry of publicity on this subject a week ago did not paint an accurate picture of his intentions.

"I had quite a fright when I turned up for training and saw these articles pinned up on the wall, with headlines saying 'Flutey wants to be an England star'," he admitted. "I thought: 'Jeez, this is embarrassing. I never once said anything like that.' What I did say, in answer to a few questions, was this: if I was eligible and I felt I was playing well, and the England coach came up and offered me an opportunity, I wouldn't shake my head immediately and tell him 'no way'.

"But this wasn't something that had occurred to me until I was asked about it, and to be honest with you, I'd feel pretty strange. It would certainly be a shock to everyone back home. I'm still young, and it may be that I'll return to New Zealand one day and pursue the ultimate goal of becoming an All Black. That was my childhood dream from the moment I saw Michael Jones and those guys play for the first time. It remains a dream."

Tomorrow, Flutey plays inside centre against Charlie Hodgson of Sale, in a game of considerable significance for the Exiles. It is not a win-or-bust kind of occasion, for Irish are comfortably mid-table, but a victory over the title holders would inject some oomph into the campaign.

The New Zealander is doing more than his bit - "He's always among our top three performers, and it's getting to the point where we're giving the play-of-the-day award to other people on the basis that we don't want the same bloke winning it every week," said Smith.

"If I see space, I'll try to make the most of it," Flutey said. "I don't much care where on the field the space might be, either. The way I look at it, rugby is about backing yourself. In New Zealand, every player puts in extra work on his skills. You train as a team, then you go through your individual stuff. Why go to the trouble if you're not of a mind to use those skills on match day?

"When I spoke to Brian about coming here, he made it clear that he wanted people to put the boot away and try to play some rugby. That suited me, so I took him at his word."

The New Zealanders have iron strength in virtually every position. In the five-eighth positions - outside-half and inside-centre in English parlance - they are positively Herculean. The presence of Daniel Carter, Aaron Mauger and Luke McAlister in the 10-12 department would be enough to make any player wonder whether he might be spitting in the face of a tidal wave in terms of All Black recognition, so Flutey's decision to reject an extension of his Super 12 contract with Wellington Hurricanes and head for England was entirely understandable.

After all, he had covered every last inch of ground, bar the tiny piece of territory reserved for the silver-ferned elite. Born in Wairarapa - Brian Lochore country - and educated as a boarder at Te Aute College, a prestigious Maori school that boasts the former Test hooker Norm Hewitt and the current half-back Piri Weepu among its alumni, he played age-group rugby for his country before signing professional terms with Wellington straight from the classroom.

He was close to selection for the Maoris against the 2005 Lions - "I was picked for the run-out against Fiji the week before the big match, but then they brought in the real boys, like Spencer and McAlister," he recalled, still a tad disappointed at missing out on a wonderful occasion in Hamilton. Happily, he made it on to the field when his province hosted the tourists four days later.

"I guess I'm the sort of bloke who wants to play, and play a whole game," he confessed. "It's one of the reasons I said 'Why not?' when the London Irish offer came my way. I'd been playing NPC since 1999 and Super 12 since 2001, but I wasn't always on the field as much as I wanted to be. I got myself stuck in that whole utility back thing - always in the match squad, rarely in the starting XV. I'd get 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there, but I wanted the full 80. To be fair, when I was given opportunities, I didn't always take them. You can't spend your whole life putting your failures down to bad luck, can you?

"Now I'm here, I'm more than happy with the amount of game time I'm getting. I arrived in England on the Tuesday, got picked on the bench for the match that weekend and ended up playing from the start because Barry Everitt injured himself in the warm-up. It was an unexpected chance and as they gave me the player of the day award, I guess it was one of those opportunities I did manage to grab."

All of which begged an interesting question. Would Flutey, passionate as he is about playing the game rather than training for training's sake, relish missing a minimum of eight competitive matches in next year's Super 14 tournament - the fate awaiting the majority of the New Zealand squad, who, at the behest of their head coach, Graham Henry, will spend the time in a World Cup camp? Is this not a surefire way of arriving in France next autumn in an undercooked state? More to the point, is this not his idea of hell on earth?

"Don't make the mistake of thinking it will be a holiday camp over there," he replied. "It will be hard, hard, hard - plenty of sweat, plenty of contact. I have some close mates in the ABs and they love being on the field as much as I do, but they appreciate the importance of getting to the World Cup in the right physical and mental condition.

"Undercooked? I don't reckon it will be an issue. Henry is a bright man with a clear idea of how to approach the World Cup. He understands how important it is to the country. Hell, we haven't won one since '87."

So that's that, then. The All Blacks, streets ahead of the rest of the planet at this present stage in proceedings, will be even better when it matters. "I think they'll be good," Flutey agreed. "But when it comes to semi-finals and finals, who knows? I don't think it's a clear-cut thing by any means." No more clear-cut, apparently, than the 2011 tournament in New Zealand, where Flutey may yet make an appearance in a black shirt. Or even a white one.