'Heavy responsibility' weighs on Abbott's shoulders

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The Independent Online

That was the England head coach Andy Robinson's description of the Gloucester player before the autumn internationals earlier this season.

The burden of taking over at inside-centre cannot be understated. It is England's problem position and has been since the 2003 Rugby World Cup, when the recently retired Will Greenwood wore the No 12 shirt.

Injuries and a dearth of obvious candidates have combined to create a serious headache for Robinson. The England head coach's favoured player for the position is Olly Barkley, but the Bath player broke a thumb just before the start of the Six Nations and that ruled him out of the whole of the Championship.

Jamie Noon, who will partner Abbott against Ireland, was tried in the position last year and that was an unmitigated disaster against Wales in Cardiff. So it falls to Abbott to try to make the position his own and restore some pride to England's Championship.

"We are looking for him to give us that extra bit of creativity," Robinson said yesterday.

The man himself was not at all fazed by his England call-up. The Wasps centre is just glad to be back playing after battling to recover from two wicked injuries in the past 21 months which restricted him to just seven caps to date.

"I feel it is a heavy responsibility, Tinds [Mike Tindall] is a great player and I just hope I can do him justice," said Abbott, 27, who was brought up in Cape Town. "But the first thing for me to do is enjoy it. I'm not apprehensive, I am just going to give it my best shot. And starting at Twickenham is going to be great."

Abbott, who has been featuring in the England A squad this winter, only heard of his recall to the senior side late on Monday.

And he was a relieved man. It was just reward after his battles against injuries. He underwent an operation to tighten up his rotator cuff and was out for five months, then in January last year he suffered a fractured tibia in the Heineken Cup match at Biarritz.

"It has not been easy coming back after two major injuries," he said. "There was a lot of hard work and a lot of physio. I was happy just getting into the A team earlier this season. But I have been involved with the 30-man senior squad throughout, which is a help.

"I have been pretty pleased with the way I've been playing, I am definitely getting back to the form I was in at the end of 2004 and hopefully I can carry on improving. I have waited for more than a year and a half for this next cap."

It is not going to be a cakewalk, however. He and the outside-centre Noon are facing possibly the best centre pairing in the world in Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. "They are two world-class players, with a lot of experience," Abbott acknowledged.

"It's going to be a very tough game. O'Driscoll is the best in the world in his position and D'Arcy is not far behind."

Whereas the creative Irish duo are also possessed of a kicking game, Abbott is not noted for his boot; he is much more a hands-on centre, with probably one of the best stepping games around.

"I am going to try to fit into the pattern," Abbott explained. "I will be trying to give the ball a bit of air, but I will not be scared to kick the ball if I have to."

If it is creativity that Robinson wants, Abbott should provide. He is perfectly capable of creating mayhem for the Irish. He too has pace, flair in attack and a good pair of hands. And it could be that the Twickenham faithful will be putting their hands together for Abbott by the end.