Not for the first time in recent memory, England are bang on the money in most aspects of their game. The reigning world champions have found themselves an excellent captain, they are brimming with front-row potential, they have a second-row pairing to die for, they boast an outside-half playing the best rugby of his life and have more decent wings at their disposal than the owners of Slimbridge. It is safe to assume that the half-time oranges come fresh from Seville and the after-match tea direct from the foothills of the Himalayas. For all we know, the great and good of Twickenham reject cigars not obviously rolled on the thighs of virgins.
But for the midfield, God would be in his heaven and all would be right with the universe. Sadly, this particular "but" is rather substantial - so substantial, indeed, that the red rose army's chances of retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy depend on its erasure.
Mike Tindall, Jamie Noon, James Simpson-Daniel, Olly Barkley ... all featured during the autumn international series, yet none were entirely convincing. There are other contenders for preferment in the centre positions, but Andy Robinson, the head coach, is in no hurry to unleash Stuart Abbott or rehabilitate Mathew Tait, let alone move Josh Lewsey from full-back or trust Ayoola Erinle with the keys to the city.
This begs a question so obvious it would hardly be worth asking, but for the fact that nobody quite knows the answer - namely, whither Ollie Smith? His is a name that has been bandied around England circles for the best part of five years now. And what has he got to show for it? Five full caps, four of them as a replacement. He was good enough to make the Lions squad for the summer tour of New Zealand; in fact, he was good enough to look good during the course of it, which was more than most of his colleagues managed. But last month, when his country was both scratching around and crying out for a couple of form midfielders, he found himself on the invisible side of anonymous. He was included in the wider 30-man squad, but spent most of his time holding tackle bags. He would have had more fun lancing boils.
"Andy told me I wasn't playing quite well enough - not as well as I had been before the Lions tour, at least - and I couldn't really disagree with him," the 23-year-old Leicester centre said this week. "But form is a funny thing, isn't it? Sometimes, it has everything to do with you as an individual; at other times, it has more to do with how the people around you are playing, how the weather is, how the bounce of the ball is going.
"I think it's true to say that I struggled a little at the start of the season, but these last few weeks have been a whole lot better and if I'm honest I thought I stood a chance of playing some part in the autumn Tests. I was wrong about that, as it turned out. But hey, every player goes through this kind of thing. I've been told that once I'm playing the kind of rugby I turned in at the end of last season, I'll be involved again. That gives me hope, because I feel I'm getting close."
Over the next week or so, he could get closer still. Starting tomorrow, Leicester play two important Heineken Cup matches against the Ospreys in the space of seven days - ties that should, all things being equal, allow Smith to renew his acquaintance with Gavin Henson, the celebrity centre from Wales who likes to think he puts the "man" in manicure. The pair of them were colleagues and rivals on the Lions tour, but neither featured much at the business end of the campaign. Henson played one Test when he should have played two; Smith none when, but for a cage-full of battered ribs, he might have made the cut for the last.
"It was a big touring party, but I did get to know Gavin a little and he seemed to me to be an all right bloke," Smith said. "These people are often different to the way they're portrayed in the press - someone like Austin Healey here at Leicester might be pretty outspoken, but he's also very genuine as a person. There was a lot of paraphernalia around Gavin over in New Zealand, but the way the media operated on that trip, he wasn't alone. Most people got some. As far as I'm concerned, he's a tough opponent who does the necessary on the field. That's all that counts, really."
No issues at all with the tan and the trinkets, then? "So he has a tan," Smith continued. "It's up to him. I'm young enough to understand a sportsman who might consider his appearance to be a big thing in the modern world. Fair play to the guy.
"Some of the things that went on with the Lions weren't great for him - maybe Alastair Campbell didn't help the situation too much - but from what I saw, he worked hard on the training paddock and competed on the field. If a player does that, the way he chooses to look isn't an issue. I'm relishing the thought of playing against him in this tournament, because he represents a challenge."
Smith is as ambitious as the next specialist outside-centre, but he measures these challenges of his by the Leicester yardstick. In his view, the England side of his life will take care of itself if he meets his targets at club level. Not to put too fine a point on it, local concerns are all that matter when he pulls on the famous Tiger-striped jersey. Having watched his first game at Welford Road at the age of seven and barely missed a home game until he was serving his apprenticeship in the academy under the all-seeing eye of the former international centre Paul Dodge, he is as steeped in the Leicester lore as any of the current squad.
"I can almost smell it when things aren't right here," he agreed. "And at the moment I can tell the place is really buzzing. These are two crucial games for us, in a competition we badly want to win again, having done it twice before.
"Anglo-Welsh matches are special at any time - there's something in the mix that means people will be flying around like lunatics from the first whistle. But there is more to it than that when it comes to the Heineken Cup, because this is a club with a European tradition at the very heart of what it's about.
"People look at the big figures of the recent past - Dean Richards, Martin Johnson, Neil Back - and wonder whether we can possibly be the same without them. I can tell you that we are the same. There is no doubting the contribution made by the people we've mentioned, but times move on.
"With Pat Howard as coach and Martin Corry as captain, we've taken things forward while keeping the fabric of the club intact. Look at the way Leicester recruited when Johnno and Backy retired. We brought in Leo Cullen - a lock forward right in the Johnno mould who gets well stuck in on the training field - and Shane Jennings, who is playing some terrific stuff in the back row. They were very astute signings, the signings of club that knows where it's going."
In the same way, Smith knows precisely the direction in which he is headed. A No 13 by instinct and breeding, he can also play the inside-centre role without losing too much sleep - "I prefer to operate in some space while I still have the gas to make the most of it, but I can crash it up if need be," he pointed out - and, if absolutely necessary, he can do a very handy job on the wing.
This versatility is worth its weight in gold ingots, especially during a World Cup campaign of the kind England will face in France in a little over 18 months' time. Smith narrowly missed selection for the 2003 competition. In common with most people who suffer rejection on the grand scale, he is in no hurry to repeat the experience.
"What I need now, I suppose, are a couple of eye-catching performances - the sort of displays that get people talking about me again," he said. "But these big club games are ends in themselves. They're about Leicester winning, not about me giving the England coaches a nudge. If we go well in the Heineken Cup and I play the role expected of me in helping to achieve success, the good things will happen. I'm sure of that."
England, so unsure of their optimum midfield combination that the autumn series gave no clue as to a lasting solution, are likely to turn to Smith sooner rather than later. When they do, he intends to make those responsible for the decision wonder what took them so long.Reuse content