His conversion is complete, now for the second coming

The Interview - Henry Paul: It has been an arduous road to union recognition for a lord of league. Nick Townsend meets an England centre who crossed countries and codes
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Henry Paul yawns and theatrically slaps his face as if awakening himself, while apologising if he appears fatigued. It is not so much, he explains, that he is suffering the exhaustive effects of two days' training under Sir Clive Woodward and his coaching team, though the Gloucester centre confesses that activity at England's Surrey training headquarters has been "intense"; more it has been the nocturnal demands of an as yet unnamed daughter, a sister for his son, Theo, born to his wife, Kathryn, only a fortnight ago. Where Paul is concerned, both arrivals have been, in their different ways, heaven-sent after a pregnant pause.

This wasn't how it was meant to be for "HP", regarded in some quarters as a rugby league and Kiwi turncoat, though hailed as a fast-track England contender by Woodward when the England coach called him up initially in November 2001. But, after his one and only cap the following March, he had been shunted into the sidings of international rugby union. Now the points have been switched in his favour again.

Two years ago, Woodward had deemed Paul's involvement as "part of a learning curve, similar to that experienced by Jason Robinson last year". A World Cup squad place beckoned. That curve on the graph had ascended pleasingly when Paul was named on the bench for what transpired to be the Grand Slam decider at the Stade de France. Before the interval, with England losing 15-0, the injured Mike Tindall gave way to the virgin soldier. Paul recalls: "I had been sitting there on the sidelines, with Dan Luger, and he said, 'I've never seen the boys so uptight'. They were just not free-flowing, as they normally were. All I could think was, 'If I get on, and we can turn it, that will be great'. When I did appear, Jason scored, and everything was buzzing again. In the second half, there were a few decisions against us and we lost our momentum. We eventually lost 15-20. I never got a shot again."

The assumption was that this first invitation had been proffered too swiftly; a mere 80 minutes after his first club appearance as a union man. "I don't think so," Paul retorts. "My only wish is that, with no disrespect, it had been against Romania, or someone like that. Not France, in Paris. Afterwards I had talks with the management. It was just felt that my time wasn't then. I understand they have to take a real hard-nosed line and sometimes that's not nice, but at least they're honest."

He anticipates the follow-up question: "It would have been great to have been holding that trophy [the Webb Ellis Cup], of course. But I'm not gutted by the fact that they've gone on and won so much. I didn't begrudge anyone the victory."

Belatedly, Paul has returned to Woodward's fold. The England coach places great store in a man playing out of his skin for his club and, by those terms, Paul has positively shed his like a python. Woodward has witnessed him recently in devastating mood for the Cherry and Whites, his tackling and defensive organisation outstanding, and his tactical and goal-kicking in very sound order, and that has satisfied him that Paul's conversion is complete.

"The last couple of days have been so tough, but also invigorating," Paul says. "All the boys are physically top-notch, mentally switched on, and not even talking about the World Cup. That's gone. Clive told us at our first meeting, 'We're number one now. The mission is to stay there and be the number one sports team in the world, not just the top rugby team'. The goal England are setting themselves is awesome, and it's amazing to think you're part of it."

We are seated in the bar at Kingsholm. Paul rocks gently on his chair, a bundle of suppressed energy. You casually broach the fact that he attains the Big Three-0 on Tuesday. "Yeah," he says, mock-grudgingly in his engaging Auckland growl. "Thanks, mate." The inference, he interprets, is that age will restrict his future participation. But then, you point out, where the backs are concerned, Jason Robinson, whose career has several parallels, is only a few months his junior.

He interjects: "And look at Catty [Mike Catt]. He's a talisman, where I'm concerned. He's getting on, but he still produces. It's really a case of, are you what's needed at the time?" He pauses. "I think it's a good time to be a centre. They're all crook at the moment. Everyone's on the sideline in ice." He laughs self-depracatingly. "To be brutally honest, I think that's my best shot."

Much faith has been invested in him to succeed this time, if not against Italy at the Stadio Flaminio next Sunday, then at some stage of the Six Nations. But is he equipped to deal with that expectation? "I'm under pressure all the time," he says. "There's 10,000 here every home match and they expect me not to put a foot wrong; to score tries; to kick goals. I'd love to do it at that higher level, with more exposure." The eyes gleam excitedly. "Yeah, TV, the world stage. I'd love to show people what I can bring to the England game."

Paul, son of a Maori father and a New Zealand-born mother of English stock - his grandfather hailed from Liverpool - was raised in Tokoroa. He was signed by the Auckland Warriors and arrived here originally on tour with the Junior Kiwis. Wakefield's Dave Topliss was awake to his potential and signed the then 19-year-old to play out of the New Zealand season. When the Wildcats defeated Wigan, Paul made a huge impression - on his opponents. Wigan subsequently acquired the player who would come to inspire veneration.

In his four years at Central Park, trophies were accumulated avariciously before the stand-off joined younger brother Robbie at Bradford Bulls. Significant further success ensued at Odsal, but with union embracing professionalism and with Paul believing that he had been "getting stale" in league, the exchange of codes was inevitable, the financier being Gloucester's owner, Tom Walkinshaw, and the indirect benefactor Woodward, who maintained a watchful eye on the convert's declaration of national affiliation. Though he had played league for the Kiwis, Paul was entitled to represent England at union by dint of his grandfather's birthplace.

Yet such cross-germination of codes can be an unnerving process, for all concerned. Paul's introduction to Gloucester was not aided by the man who signed him, Andy Keast, decamping to Worcester. "Where I had come from, Brian Noble at the Bulls had everything organised, I wouldn't say with military precision, but everything was done so that every player performed at his optimum. When I first came here, everything was a bit haphazard, still a bit amateurish. I didn't have a moves sheet, not on paper, anyway, so I could learn them. I didn't know any of the calls. So, in my first training session, Robert Todd and I collided and I nearly buckled Toddy's knee. That wasn't a great start. But everything's really changed over my time here. When I arrived, it was just a 10-man rugby team who loved a muddy pitch so they could rumble up the field. Now our game [under Nigel Melville] is more expansive."

At times, Paul's transitional period has been painful to observe. The Shed, or a vocal section of it, came to some decidedly vitriolic conclusions about this recipient of such a lucrative contract. "I'd come from league, where I was used to making 30 tackles and giving the ball about 40 times. I arrived here and had one game against London Irish when I got no passes and made no tackles. It wasn't really my fault. But I could understand if you're on the terrace, you're going to be saying, 'What's that guy doing out there?' But I've really enjoyed overcoming the difficulties. I just feed off it. The more people put me down, the more I thrive on it."

His nadir came at Munster in last season's Heineken Cup - "apparently, I had a shocker," he concedes - where, at full-back, he was distinctly troubled by Munster's aerial bombardment. "The next week we played Saracens, and when they announced my name, the Shed booed me. People want to blame someone, so they blame me. They pay their money, that's fine. Anyway, we went and beat Saracens by 50 points. Winning is the important thing. I can't always be the best player."

Melville's decision to switch him to inside-centre brought about Paul's redem-ption. Now the Kingsholm faithful, among whom Woodward was a significant spectator for yesterday's fixture against Newcastle, laud his every contribution. You ask Paul whether, given another England opportunity, this time circumstances will make it easier for him to make an impact.

"In a way, but also in a way not. Now everyone wants to spill England blood. Every other team will look at it as if England's gone into their house and stolen something of value. It's a pressure. But good pressure. That's pressure I enjoy."

Despite a decade domiciled here, you suspect he could have divided loyalties should he ever be summoned for England duty against New Zealand. But no. "I'd love it," he declares. "For me, the proudest moment would be playing for England against the All Blacks. All my Kiwi friends say, 'How can you do it?' When I went to play in the [World] Sevens at Wellington, I got called a 'loser', but the guys I was playing with, people like Simon Amor, those were my mates. That was my team. England."

The vehemence of that allegiance from this centre of excellence brooks no argument about his dedication to the England cause. Nor, on recent evidence, about his desire to justify the belief long held in him - at this, the second time of asking.

Biography: Henry Paul

Born: 10 February 1974 in Tokoroa, NZ.

Height: 5ft 11in. Weight: 14st 7lb.

Family: Married to Kathryn, 2 children.

Union career (club): Gloucester (53 appearances, 265 points - 7 tries, 54 penalties, 34 conversions).

Union career (international): England, 1 Test (v France, 2 March '02).

Rugby league background: Arrived in Britain in 1993 while captaining Junior Kiwis on tour. And stayed. Played 19 matches for Wakefield. Joined Wigan in 1994, made New Zealand Test debut 1995. Totalled 147 matches for Wigan, scoring 550 points. Moved to Bradford Bulls in September 1998. Union experience with Bath in 1996 before making permanent switch in October 2001.

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