Gillies stands tall but still he is overlooked

Worcester lock a trojan for club but neglected by country. Hugh Godwin says it's England's loss
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The Independent Online

On the one hand Brain would love the likes of Pat Sanderson, Worcester's ultra-consistent flanker, and Craig Gillies, anecdotally and statistically the country's leading line-out exponent, to feature when England's head coach, Andy Robinson, names 30 men to prepare for the autumn internationals. On the other, with Robinson not expected to look beyond the 61 announced in August in the Elite Player Squad and Senior National Academy, it means Sanderson, Gillies and Worcester, unbeaten so far this season, can continue to give their undivided attention to giving the rest of the Premiership packs the hurry-up.

Still Brain, a former lock forward himself, is irked by Gillies' inability to buck the England pecking order led by Ben Kay, Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick. "The people responsible for picking these representative sides ought to have a word with the Premiership players and the coaches.

"I'm sure if you asked any of them which forwards they have to plan and prepare for most, Craig would be near the top of the list. It seems he is behind [Leeds's] Stuart Hooper and Tom Palmer because he is perceived simply as a set-piece forward, when in truth he has bulked up and added much more to his game."

Across this sea of mixed messages, swelled by the conflicting demands of club and country, Gillies shines as a 6ft 8in lighthouse of sanity. When he says "your guess is as good as mine" as to why he has not figured at national level since 2000, there is no obvious sense of undue rancour. "I don't get too hung up about it," Gillies says, "I'm enjoying the fact that Worcester stayed up last year and I'm enjoying the rugby we're playing."

In the late Eighties, England's line-out bloomed after the late-flowering Paul Ackford won his first full cap at the age of 30. Gillies, who won more line-outs and stole more opposition ball than anyone else in the Premiership last season, is 29, so he still has time. And in any case, perhaps the measured look in his eyes as we sit in a suite overlooking Worcester's ever-expanding home at Sixways can be attributed to experiences which transcend the vagaries of sport.

It might be five-and-a-half years since Gillies played for the England A team, but it is also three-and-a-half since he and his wife, Tina, were delivered of their son, Ossian, and "about four" since Craig lost all his bodily hair to the condition of alopecia.

"It makes me recognisable," he says, when I ask what relevance, if any, it has to his rugby. "It's not like you can hide away from it. You're out on a rugby pitch with 29 other guys playing and however many thousand watching.

"It was initially a slow process. I began to get a bit of hair loss in my beard and then over time it spread to my arms and legs and my body and then finally my head. I don't know what triggered it, I've been to a doctor and a dermatologist and they really provided no answers, no solutions, no anything. In the early days it was a little offputting, a little disturbing; it got me down a bit. Then your eyebrows fall out and you think, 'Can it get any worse?' You get used to it and you learn to live with it."

Gillies was born in Paisley and could have represented Scotland, but he grew up in Devon and played at Twickenham for Brunel University before he joined his first senior club, Richmond. By 2000 he had joined Llanelli and was being talked of as a possible international when Martin Johnson and Danny Grewcock were injured for the Six Nations' Championship.

Instead, after facing Ireland A and France A, Gillies broke his jaw in a Welsh Cup tie at Whitland and the chance was gone. He returned after two months to score a try for Llanelli in the final at the Millennium Stadium ("like a kangaroo stung by a hornet" said the Rugby Annual for Wales), and after a short loan spell at Gloucester moved to Worcester in 2002.

Having recently signed up for another three years, Gillies will take his pilfering skills to Wasps this afternoon with Worcester on an unbeaten run consisting of a draw against Gloucester and wins over London Irish and Saracens. The touchline tussle should be quite a sight, with Gillies' running total of 18 line-out wins this season second only to the 21 of Wasps' Richard Birkett.

"John Brain's passion is forward play and the rest is up to us to buy into his system," says Gillies. "We know what we're about, and we haven't performed as well as we'd like to yet. We could be more cohesive between the backs and forwards."

As he talks, he rubs a hand over the dark stubbly shadow on the crown of his head. As inexplicably as it began, the hair loss has in the last couple of months shown signs of reversing. "It can be permanent or it can be temporary," says Gillies. "It's as unknown as that."