Grewcock the silent ruler of the second-row jungle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Among the many things Danny Grewcock shares with Martin Johnson, celebrated predecessor and sometime partner in the engine room of the England scrum, are a sporting upbringing in an earthy corner of the Midlands, hands the size of small counties, an on-field presence that is dark and threatening and a disciplinary record to rival that of a family of Mafiosi.

Among the many things Danny Grewcock shares with Martin Johnson, celebrated predecessor and sometime partner in the engine room of the England scrum, are a sporting upbringing in an earthy corner of the Midlands, hands the size of small counties, an on-field presence that is dark and threatening and a disciplinary record to rival that of a family of Mafiosi.

We can add to the list a profound reluctance to engage in any form of public discourse. Johnson was a strong, silent type who offered the occasional thought only as part of his duties as England captain. Grewcock, unburdened by the demands of leadership, is positively Trappist.

A couple of years ago, when Grewcock was selected ahead of Johnson for a Six Nations' Championship match against Italy in Rome, it was put to him that his promotion might conceivably have a touch of the permanent about it. His questioner soon wished he had asked something - anything - else. "You want me to say I'm better than Johnson, is that it?" said the Bath lock, rising to his full 6ft 6in height and looking every last ounce of his 18st. "Is that what you're after? Well, tough. I don't read what you blokes write anyway." This, it should be pointed out, was Grewcock at his most prolix - the closest he had yet come to the Gettysburg Address. Usually, he is nowhere near as talkative.

Yet he is very definitely worth talking about. Johnson's domination of the second-row jungle was so complete, particularly in the final phase of his decade-long career at the most exalted level of the sport, that it was easy to forget that Grewcock, the younger man by a little under three years, had accumulated some 40 caps while operating in the great man's shadow - more than Bill Beaumont or Maurice Colclough, far more than Paul Ackford or Nigel Redman, and almost as many as David Marques and John Currie, that grand boilerhouse partnership of the late 1950s, put together.

To get a decent take on Grewcock, who would sooner lance boils than discuss himself, it is best to approach those most closely associated with him. Men like Dave Reddin, the peerless conditioning specialist and fitness co-ordinator whose work with England has been central to their success on the world stage, and Andy Robinson, who takes primary responsibility for the performance of the red rose pack. Rather like Clive Woodward, who grades Grewcock "Persil white" when it comes to discipline even though he is the one player to have been sent off during the head coach's custodianship of the national team, they praise him to the heavens.

"Danny? He's pretty phenomenal," Reddin said this week, a few hours after Grewcock, who had missed the defeat by Ireland because of injury, had been recalled to the team for today's important match against Wales at Twickenham. "We have a spectacularly hard-working group of players, but even in this company, he is one of those who stands out. I just don't have to worry about him."

Okay, so he does as he's told. But what makes him special? "He has an ability to push himself further than almost any sportsman I know," Reddin continued. "I think it comes from his martial arts background, which instilled tremendous powers of concentration and discipline in him. I don't know much about that part of his past, but he is definitely a black belt in something dangerous." (Karate, as a matter of fact, although Grewcock passes it off as a youthful irrelevance).

"What I do know is that he could have done almost anything in terms of athletic pursuit. Looking at the spectacular results he achieves on the rowing machine, he would be one hell of a bloke to put in a boat. With a little technical instruction, he could have been a world-class oarsman."

Robinson is equally sold. "The thing about [rugby] union is that unless you get your scrums and line-outs right, the set-piece aspect of the game always comes back to bite you. Wales found it against France, when their scrummage went wrong; we found it against the Irish when our line-out fell apart. Danny is outstanding in both areas. He's a magnificent scrummager, a real top-notcher in that department.

"And at the line-out, he's transformed himself from a natural middle jumper - the role he performed so effectively on the Lions tour of Australia in 2001 - into a front-jumping specialist who delivers his own ball. We could have done with any sort of ball against Ireland. Guaranteed ball would have won us the match."

Interestingly, Robinson sees another parallel with Johnson. "Danny is developing a genuine understanding of the ball-running side of the game," he said. "He doesn't simply go from ruck to ruck these days, although he still cleans out opponents as well as any lock in the world. He is putting himself in positions where he can carry the ball in dangerous parts of the field, just as Johnson did in the latter years of his career. Who wants to see someone like Grewcock stampeding around the wide open spaces with the ball tucked under one arm and defenders bouncing off him in all directions? It's not nice, is it?"

Not nice at all. And in the final analysis, this is the point about Grewcock. For all his dedication in the gym, his tractor-like scrummaging, his heavily-muscled athleticism at the front of the line-out and the velocity of his rucking, it is his gift for intimidation that defines him. Johnson was equally forthright in this regard; during their 18 Tests as a starting pair - 15 for England, three for the Lions - they happily took the vow of silence, but rejected the vow of non-violence. Happily for them, rugby never pretended to embrace the doctrine of passive resistance. If it had, both Johnson and Grewcock would have spent their weekends doing something else.

For a few minutes last Tuesday, Grewcock agreed to answer a question or two. It was a rare event, almost a one-off, and at no point did he appear to be enjoying this brief interlude of social intercourse.

Asked whether he thought his recall would have a positive effect on an England line-out reduced to its component parts by the Irish, he shook his head sadly at the rank stupidity of the question and replied: "It's bullshit to suggest that everything will be perfect, just because I'm back in the side. Please don't heap that sort of pressure on me. Steve Borthwick [Grewcock's colleague at Bath and the man he replaces this weekend] is probably the best line-out jumper in the Premiership. It wasn't any one individual's problem against Ireland; it was an across-the-board thing."

He was not noticeably more forthcoming on the subject of the try he scored against Scotland at Murrayfield last month, a rumbustious rampage to the posts that set a crown on his man-of-the-match performance. "I scored my first international try in 1997, and that was my second," he said. "I'm looking forward to another in 2011."

There was not even a semblance of self-congratulation in his response. The try was there to be scored, and he scored it. Someone had to, and it turned out to be him. End of story. Finito. Thank you and goodbye.

Grewcock will not get to 2011 - not in an England shirt, anyway. He may not last until the 2007 World Cup in France, although Reddin, for one, would be in no hurry to bet heavy money on it. But a second Lions tour, little more than a year from now, is well within his compass. Grewcock will be 32 in November and rather fancies a 10-match stomp around the twin islands of New Zealand, knocking seven bells out of sundry All Blacks deep in Colin Meads country. Together with the Ireland duo Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan - the first a seriously hard nut from Limerick, the second a wild-eyed rover from Cork - he would frighten the living daylights out of the silver-ferned brigade.

Like Grewcock, O'Connell and O'Callaghan keep themselves to themselves. As anxious mothers have been heard to say down the ages, the quiet ones are the worst.

Comments