Hazell plays for pride of Kingsholm and country

Gloucester's local boy has rebuilt his game and aims to show England he is worthy of a recall by inspiring his side into the play-offs with a win against Wasps today
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It used to be an unwritten law of rugby union that a member of the Gloucester pack should be born within a square mile of Kingsholm - preferably within earshot of the crack of fist on head. Professionalism put paid to that idea, as it put paid to so many things. The Cherry and Whites draw their forwards from all points of the compass nowadays, and as a consequence the likes of Olivier Azam and Patrice Collazo and Jake Boer never had the pleasure of performing at Matson, a local team apparently drawn from the small band of players considered too aggressive for the Devil's Island XV.

All of which makes Andy Hazell a fixed point in an ever-changing world. The 28-year-old England flanker was born in the middle of town, remembers the days when Gloucester's idea of embracing the exotic was to recruit reinforcements from as far away as Cheltenham - or even from the Forest of Dean, provided the passports were in order - and knows what it was to undertake the Saturday afternoon death march to Matson, a large estate situated at the foot of the city's dry ski slopes, and accept his ritual punishment. He may possibly have been one of those deluded souls who attempted to ski uphill in an effort to get away from the place, although he would not dream of admitting it.

"I was fresh out of school and playing for the Gloucester Old Boys club," he recalled this week. "I was only 17, and they wouldn't allow 17-year-olds in the first team. But I was desperate to play some adult rugby, so they picked me for the seconds. It was always rougher in the seconds than in the firsts; all the dodgy sorts, the real bandits, seemed to congregate in the seconds. Matson? They played some terrific stuff, but they had this reputation for being as hard as nails. They still have. I played there a few times and always got my head kicked in. They really gave it to you in those days, especially if you were a young kid. Looking back, I can laugh about it. I can't say it was funny at the time, though. It bloody well hurt.

"But that's Gloucester rugby all over, isn't it? There has always been a 'let's get stuck in' culture here and it will never disappear completely, however far the game moves on. The old values are there every time you run out at Kingsholm. The crowd expect a player to give 100 per cent every game, and if they feel they get it they will always support him, win or lose. It's the thing I most love about the place. I try to play the way I would want someone to perform if I was the one paying good money to stand in the Shed."

Hazell stands squarely in the grand tradition of Gloucester forwards - the Sargents and Blakeways, the Fidlers and Boyles, the Gadds and Teagues - and his passionate identification with the past, his All Black-style determination to honour the shirt he wears, were among the things that impressed the England coach Andy Robinson, who, in an earlier life, suffered a fair few kickings of his own during his visits to Kingsholm with Bath. Indeed, Robinson picked Hazell with some regularity last season, starting him against Canada and Wales and giving him four runs off the bench. Yet those self-same qualities were also his undoing. It is only now, after a careful rebuilding of his game by the Gloucester coach, Dean Ryan, that Hazell is beginning to explore the further reaches of his potential.

"Andy always saw it as his role to hit every ruck, make every tackle and cover every last yard during the course of a game," Ryan explained. "You couldn't question his spirit - believe me, he used to take a fearful amount of punishment, to the point where I struggled to understand how he put himself back on the field the following week - but there were obvious problems with his game management. We've talked it through and as a result he's playing more intelligently now. By picking his moments, he's starting to show some skills away from the breakdown. He's also more effective for longer. Andy is in wonderful form at the moment. The best of his career."

Whether this surge in performance is sufficient to restore him to a place in Robinson's affections is difficult to assess. England certainly have issues in the back row, not least in the breakaway position, and Hazell possesses at least some of the qualities the world champions crave, not least his ability to "get over the ball" - in other words, to secure possession, or even relieve the opposition of it, at the breakdown.

There again, much has happened since the Gloucester man last played for his country, as a replacement in the Six Nations victory over Scotland a little over 13 months ago. Pat Sanderson of Worcester - an arch-rival, if a recent frank and forthright exchange of on-field views was anything to go by - forced himself into a place in the back row last autumn and acquitted himself magnificently. Magnus Lund, of Sale, has also pushed himself into the frame, as has Michael Lipman, of Bath.

"When it comes to England, I prefer to keep quiet," Hazell said. "It hurts when you suddenly find yourself out of the squad and out of consideration, as I did before the start of the last Six Nations, but you soon come to appreciate what you have at club level and hang on to it in the hope that if you play well enough England will come back to you.

"I'm a one-position player, so I'm not ideal bench material. If I'm going to feature, it will be in the starting XV. But that's as much as I know. I don't see why I shouldn't force my way back in; I haven't given up on it. But I'm not one to shout the odds. When I speak about England, I always seem to say the wrong thing and talk myself down. Let's see what happens."

This close to a tour - England play two Tests in Australia next month - a player in Hazell's position needs to catch the eye in a big game or two. Today, he has a heaven-sent opportunity. Wasps are due at Kingsholm for the most important Premiership encounter of the season, a game that will send one of the two clubs into the play-offs and leave them a single win away from a Grand Final appearance at Twickenham.

Gloucester has been buzzing all week, and a raucous afternoon is assured. With a little luck it will be every bit as raucous as the famous day Wasps won with the last move of the match, after which Lawrence Dallaglio's mother had a tempestuous touch-line argument with a purple-faced local who had the temerity to ask her why she "wasn't back home doing the ironing".

Hazell can barely wait. "I love playing Wasps," he said. "They have some high-quality players, but the real challenge is confronting their mentality. They have hardened themselves into believing that if a game goes down to the last few minutes they'll be the ones who come good. They live for the business end of big matches.

"They'll be full of attitude this time, because they won't be able to bear the thought of failing to make the play-offs. We'd have made it already, but for a couple of daft defeats. With all respect to Bristol, we really should have beaten them here back in March. But it's come down to this and it's our job to make the best of it."

To suggest Wasps were taken unawares by London Irish six days ago would be an understatement of considerable magnitude, given that the Exiles put nine tries past them. Hazell believes Gloucester are also capable of propelling Dallaglio's eyebrows in a skywards direction, not least because the Cherry and Whites do things so differently now that a new generation of attacking backs - Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen, Mark Foster, Olly Morgan - are casting spells that were once the sole preserve of James Simpson-Daniel.

"We honestly believe we can attack from anywhere," the flanker said. "It used to be the case that everyone knew how we would play. We'd dominate up front, drive a few line-outs, kick our goals. Speaking personally, it was bliss: any flanker looks good if his tight forwards are in control and he spends the entire game on the front foot, running on to the ball or smashing people on his own terms.

"But we've changed during the course of the season. In fact, it's almost as if we have had two seasons in one, or that we have moved straight to next season without finishing this one. The young players have made a tremendous impact, and I have to say that as a result I'm enjoying my rugby more than ever. It is an exciting time to be at the club."

Yet amid these new-fangled diversions, Hazell remains a traditionalist at heart. One of his primary motivations today concerns Terry Fanolua, the Samoan centre-turned-Gloucester folk hero who will make the last of countless appearances at Kingsholm. "It means everything to us, giving Terry a proper send-off," he said. "He's a special bloke who deserves a special day." There speaks the true Gloucester soul, forged, at least in part, in the fires of Matson RFC.