Grewcock lays down the law

England know their black belt with a taste for the dark arts will not take a backwards step against the French tomorrow By Chris Hewett Rugby Correspondent
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On the rare occasions Danny Grewcock takes time out to analyse his reputation - rather like Tallulah Bankhead, who famously described herself as "pure as the driven slush", the least self-obsessed forward in England does not take himself seriously - he invariably finds himself wondering why he attracts fuss and bother in the way a carcass draws a pack of hyenas. The answer is simple, although Grewcock is far too modest to recognise it. If a modern jazz maestro is understood by fewer people the better he gets, the same goes for a master of rugby's dark arts.

Martin Johnson experienced something very similar at the height of his career; not that Grewcock would dream of bracketing himself with the kindred spirit who huffed and puffed alongside him in a thousand England and Lions scrums. The more ruthlessly Johnson pursued his business in the darkened recesses of the union game, the more valuable he was to his colleagues - and the more criticism he was forced to absorb from those who had no idea what it took to stare a Springbok lock in the face, to stand firm against an All Black pack on the stampede, to attempt to dominate the likes of Paul O'Connell or Fabien Pelous when they were the ones hell-bent on doing the dominating.

If Grewcock has had his issues with referees and disciplinary tribunals down the years - and he would not quibble with someone who accused him of having a record as long as an orang-utan's arm - he has never for a moment felt the need to make an excuse or enter a plea of mitigation in respect of the way he plays his sport. It is not that there is no morality in him. It is just that Grewcock's morality is unaccompanied by a halo, for the very good reason that professional rugby is no vicarage tea party. Treat it like a picnic, and you'll be eaten alive. End of.

Take the yellow-card incident during the Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield a fortnight ago. Grewcock was given a 10-minute rest without the option for clattering into his opposite number, the Edinburgh lock Alastair Kellock, who was loitering without any particular intent at the side of a ruck near the England line. As per usual, there was no great protestation of innocence at the time. Two weeks on, the silence on the mitigation front was equally deafening.

"I didn't ask Kellock to stand where he stood," Grewcock said, 24 hours after surviving a citing scare relating to an alleged stamping incident during last weekend's Powergen Cup semi-final between Bath and Llanelli Scarlets and being confirmed in his country's starting formation for tomorrow's Six Nations set-to with France. "It was his decision to put himself in an offside position, a position that meant I was being obstructed, and my decision to move him. Was it wise? Possibly not, but it was the call I made at the time."

And the stamping? Or rather, given the unusual decision to spare Grewcock a full hearing before the Bloody Assizes and dish out a caution for recklessness instead, the half-stamping? "I didn't lose much sleep, because I stayed up most of the night watching the Joe Calzaghe fight," he replied, his soft eyes ablaze with irony. "The disciplinary officer did a very good job. I have faith in disciplinary officers."

He has less faith in the motives and practices of the public prints, it seems. While there have been very few trouble-free seasons since he first registered a presence in the wider rugby consciousness almost a decade ago, he is quick to emphasise that not all the charges relating to his on-field behaviour have resulted in convictions. "Some people in the press appear to have a thing about me," he said. "Only this week, one of the papers listed my so-called indiscretions - even the ones where I got off. Did they mention that bit? No."

England's back-room staff frequently mention Grewcock, though, almost always for positive reasons. Dave Reddin, the conditioning specialist, considers him to be one of the most gifted athletes of his generation, in any sport. "I don't know whether he's ever been in a boat, but he would have been a world-class rower," he once said.

Andy Robinson, the head coach, is also a devout supporter. Only once has Robinson seriously wondered whether his senior lock might be more trouble than he is worth - in New Zealand in 2004, when Grewcock was cited and banned for treading on Daniel Carter, the resident genius in the All Black back division. That apart, the two men see eye to eye on the realities of rugby life, realities that demand bastardy as well as brilliance; a little Rambo to go with the Rimbaud, as the French might put it.

Of course, there is more to Grewcock than an honours degree in enforcement. He is no John Eales, the breathtaking all-purpose lock who led Australia to World Cup victory in 1999, but in his own way he has moved into cutting-edge territory. Pitched against Eales on the Lions tour of Wallaby country in 2001, he impressed his hosts with his work-rate, his courage and his hostility. Michael Foley, the hooker from Queensland who would later coach Grewcock at Bath, confronted him during that series, and sums up the experience thus: "The fun of it, if you can call it that, was knowing that with Danny on the field, you always had a better than even chance of being sorted out. It was up to you to find a way through the minefield."

Yet Foley was conscious of a flaw in Grewcock's approach, and set about eradicating it the moment he retired from international rugby and started working at the Recreation Ground. "He was one of the Lions' best forwards, but when he was in possession, he went to ground much earlier than he should have done," he recalled. "We used to say to each other: 'Christ, what if that big bastard starts running really hard at us instead of hitting the deck as soon as we go near him? He'll break tackles by the dozen.' Now, he's doing just that. His ball-carrying has gone through the roof, and that puts a valuable new dimension on his game."

The man himself agrees with every word. "Is this my best run of form since 2001? I didn't play too well against the Scots, so probably not," he said. "Am I doing more with the ball? Yes. I definitely feel I've put more on my game. Michael and the other Australian coaches at the Rec were happy with my set-piece work, but they identified areas that could be improved and the running, handling part of the game was one of them. I think I understand rugby more than I did, and I'm certainly enjoying the way I get to play nowadays. It's nice to be really involved now and again, rather than just scrummaging and jumping and hitting rucks."

It is almost nine years since Grewcock, then a 24-year-old martial arts fanatic with a karate black belt, playing his rugby with second division Coventry, made his Test debut against Argentina in Buenos Aires, scoring a try of the consolation variety in the closing minutes of an embarrassingly heavy defeat. Now, 18 months shy of the 2007 World Cup in France, he has more than 60 caps to his name and a perfectly realistic intention of operating at this level for another couple of seasons at least. He trains hard, hits his conditioning targets and rarely misses a fixture for Bath or England.

"I understand myself better, as well as the game," he said. "I know I'm not a leader. When they made me captain at Bath, I hated every minute of it. Steve Borthwick [his second-row partner at both club and international level] is much better suited. I need a couple of days staring at a video to see the things Steve sees in a split second on the field. Even when I was captain, I listened to him. He knows so much about it, there is no need to question him. I don't think anyone would say that about me.

"Also, I've adapted my training to suit my needs as I get older. When I was playing at Saracens in the days of Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella, surrounded by legends every day of the week, I was double-keen to run around and show people how fit I was. It was Paddy Johns, the old Irish lock, who put me straight. 'Don't do things you don't need to do,' he told me. He knew what was what, did Paddy."

And tomorrow? What does Grewcock expect from the French? "They'll be physically strong, difficult to tackle and Pelous, especially, will play some hard rugby," he replied, with a glowering emphasis on the penultimate word. Are they the team everyone thought they were at the start of the tournament, or are some of them, Pelous included, over the hill? "You tell them they're shit if you like," he replied. "I won't be saying anything of the sort."

Grewcock has never been a great one for talking, least of all on the subject of himself. Suffice to say he does what he does for better or worse, secure in the knowledge every successful team needs someone like him among their number. He makes no apologies, and sheds no tears. As the aforementioned Miss Bankhead also said: "If I had to live my life over again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner."