Gloucester v Ulster: Allen looks back to bright future

Gloucester's creative young centre loves playing in front of the Shed yet yearns for an England recall. By Tim Glover
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The Independent Online

Nobody can call hima one-cap wonder. Anthony Allen has played twice for England, and his introduction to international rugby could hardly have been more challenging. At the age of 20 the Gloucester centre was thrown in against New Zealand at Twickenham in November 2006, and the following week he played against Argentina. Then the trail went icily cold.

Allen did some excellent things in that defeat against the All Blacks, but that didn't prevent the specialist No 12 from being told his services were no longer required. The whole thing is still a bit of a mystery, for Allen is one of the more creative and dangerous centres in the country. His time will surely come.

"Making your Test debut against the strongest team in the world is maybe not the best career move," Allen said. "I enjoyed it at the time and it was a massive learning curve, but looking back it might have come a bit too soon. I thought I played reasonably well, but the thing is I was smaller then and it showed up in the game. I've put on weight, I'm bigger and stronger and I've learnt new things. I think I've improved quite a lot." He is a better player now, yet he cannot get into the elite squad.

If size isn't everything, it certainly counts for something. Just listen to the England coach, Brian Ashton, justify the selection of Lesley "The Volcano" Vainikolofor England's elite squad of 32 for the Six Nations: "He's 6ft 2in and well over 17 stone. We haven't seen too many wings built along those lines." In fact, you see more and more of them, and some of them are even homegrown.

When Allen first clapped eyes on the Tongan, who was signed for Gloucester from Bradford Bulls last summer, he and everybody else found it an enlightening experience. Vainikolo, who also played league for New Zealand after moving to Auckland, scored five tries on his Guinness Premiership debut, against Leeds. Some players go a whole career without scoring as many.

"My first impression was that I was glad Lesley was playing for Gloucester and not somebody else," Allen said. "He can not only destroy defences, but because of that he opens up space for other players. He's made a big impact very quickly, although maybe I didn't think England would recruit him that soon."

The rugby league boys are hit or miss. Henry Paul and Andy Farrell were expensive misses, whereas Jason Robinson hit the bull's-eye. For Gloucester, Dean Ryan, the head coach, also recruited the wing Karl Pryce, and that was a move in the wrong direction. If Pryce wasn't injured he was unsure of his place, and soon returned to Wigan. "One week he was with us, the next he wasn't," Allen said, "and that came as a bit of a shock."

Gloucester were the flavour of several months until the rains of January diluted their spirit and they lost in the Premiership at Bath and again last week to the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup. Today they are back at Kingsholm, where they have to beat Ulster, who cannot even win in their Belfast stronghold any more, to reach the quarter-finals. What they need is a home tie; go on the road and it's a different game.

"It'll be great to be back in front of the Shed," Allen said. "Home advantage is huge. During the warm-up you get a big buzz from the crowd. It's great fun. I like playing rugby for people who really enjoy it."

It's a good point. Gloucester are lucky to have Allen, a player who has been mistreated by England and who now has to work his way back up from the Saxons.

He has got a sound pedigree. Born in Southampton – his father coaches a team called the Trojans in nearby Eastleigh – he won a scholarship to Millfield and ticked all the right boxes with the England junior stuff. When he played for England's Grand Slam-winning Under-21 side two years ago, he was on the field for every minute of every match and scored five tries.

Allen was at Harlequins, briefly, before Nigel Melville, the then coach of Gloucester, signed him to Kingsholm two-and-a-half years ago. Allen has formed a partnership with Ryan Lamb, the young Gloucester stand-off who can also play a bit, and Mike Tindall who, relatively speaking, is getting on a bit. Tindall's partner is Zara Phillips, Princess Anne's daughter, so he could, relatively speaking, become a member of the Royal Family, and if that was the case the Shed would not be invited. Allen might be.

"Tins has been in the top flight for 10 years, and what he says to me on the pitch I say to Ryan," Allen said. "Ryan's coming on leaps and bounds, and in an ideal world, one day we might be linking up for England."

Allen has a display case at his parents' home in Fareham containing his first cap, his England jersey and that of his opposite number, Aaron Mauger. Last summer, when England took a very depleted squad to South Africa and conceded more than 100 points in two Tests, Allen was on the bench, but he never got off it. And that hurt.

"It would have been awesome to have played a part but I didn't,and that was a downer. Brian [Ashton] said I wouldn't have made much of a difference."

These two go back a bit, to when Ashton was in charge of the national academy, but there is not a lot of communication. When Allen ran out against the All Blacks two Novembers ago, he had been selected by Andy Robinson and Ashton was the backs coach. "No one said much at all, but my club was very supportive. It's up to me to prove that England were wrong. You can be fast-tracked from the Saxons; just look at Nick Easter."

Two of the final Heineken Cup pool games will be shown on Sky Sports 2 today, from 1pm