A wing and a prayer needed to stop North
England flyer David Strettle today has the unenviable task of trying to tackle the supersized George North. He can't fight fire with fire but claims there is more than one way to skin a cat. He talks to Chris Hewett
A little over three weeks ago, just as they were about to head north to Edinburgh for the Six Nations game with Scotland, the England wings David Strettle and Chris Ashton found themselves discussing what, on the face of it, was a rather serious issue: namely, what precise roles they would end up playing.
"Chris is a right wing by preference, as am I," says Strettle. "We both knew one of us would have to shift to the left and I thought it might be me on the grounds that I'd just come back into the side. I was pretty relieved when Chris said: 'Actually, I quite fancy it for a change.' The trouble was, no one bothered to tell the kit man."
So it was that Strettle found himself wearing the wrong number on his back at Murrayfield – as, by logical extension, did Ashton. It was the same story a week later in Rome and for all we know, it will happen again at Twickenham today. Not that Strettle is oblivious to the fact that every victory has its consequences. By coming out ahead in the right-left debate, he has lumbered himself with the not insignificant task of subduing George North – modern-day European rugby's equivalent of neutering a fully grown mammoth without the aid of anaesthetic.
Perhaps because he has recently faced and surmounted far greater obstacles than a mere rival wing, however big that rival might be, Strettle seems blissfully serene. "North is certainly a unit," he acknowledges. "He's also a very exciting player. But there are big wings all over the place these days: in the Premiership you can find yourself up against someone like Alesana Tuilagi at Leicester, and he's not the only one. When you're my size – normal size, I call it – you accept it. You fight fire with fire if that's what is needed, but it's also important to impose your own style and your own skill set on the contest. As the saying goes, there's more than one way of skinning a cat."
Strettle missed the 2007 World Cup with a virulent outbreak of Beckham-itis: technically speaking, he broke a metatarsal bone in his left foot and continued to break it ad nauseam. To make matters worse, he missed last year's global gathering too – not because he was unfit, but because Martin Johnson declined to pick him. "That," he admits, "was frustrating. I felt my form warranted an opportunity, but it didn't come my way. Every player experiences rejection at some point in his career, so it wasn't that I felt picked on. I was quite down, though. It was a difficult time."
By comparison, an afternoon spent tangling with North sounds positively pleasurable. There has, however, been an ongoing discussion among the England players on the best way to cramp the style of the supersized Welsh backs. Should they be tackled high as a means of preventing the killer offload? Go high on North or Jamie Roberts and there is always the risk of being bounced off, in the way the Austin Healeys and Jeremy Guscotts were routinely swatted aside by Jonah Lomu in the 1990s. Go low? That creates the alternative peril of bringing a mobile and predatory Welsh back row into play.
"It's a tough one," Strettle acknowledges. "Ideally, you want to chop them off at the knees or ankles and bring them to the floor. As Brad Barritt [the England centre who plays alongside Strettle at club level] said earlier in the week, they can't run without their legs. But that's not necessarily going to prevent the player offloading, because if he falls the right way and has the support, he can do it very effectively off the deck. Rugby is a game that fools you into thinking you've done the right thing and then lets you know you've done the wrong one when you watch the video. I'll approach it as I always approach these things. I'll try to get a sense of what's happening and do what I think is best at the time."
A gifted footballer in all senses of the word – he had trials with Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton in his teens and played a good deal of rugby league until moving into the union code and making an immediate impact on the international seven-a-side circuit – Strettle has had a peculiar Test career. First capped by Brian Ashton in Ireland five years ago, he scored his one and only England try on debut at Croke Park. After which there were only six more caps, two of them off the bench, before catching Stuart Lancaster's eye and winning a place in a remodelled red-rose squad.
Charlie Sharples of Gloucester was ante-post favourite to fill the gap left by Mark Cueto, whose excellent England career reached its natural conclusion at the World Cup. Strettle, his competitive juices in full flood since going from Harlequins to Saracens at the start of last season, saw it differently. Thriving every bit as much in his new club's highly structured brand of rugby as in Quins' counter-attacking style, he has proved himself one of the hardest-working wings in the country. "Quins were always a club with potential," he says. "But when I looked at it, Saracens were the ones who were closest to fulfilling potential, and we proved that last year by winning the Premiership. That gave me a surge in confidence and convinced me I could still make it work for me at England level."
A big game against the most talked-about wing in the northern hemisphere today will go a long way towards convincing everyone else.
Against All Odds: Four England v Wales surprises at Twickenham
England 19 Wales 26
England had been involved in a second successive World Cup final just four months previously, so when they opened up a 16-6 half-time lead, their supremacy looked set to continue. But injuries disrupted them, Jonny Wilkinson fell apart and Wales won the game through late tries from Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips.
England 15 Wales 24
With four Lions Test forwards in their pack, England did not expect to be taken to the cleaners up front. Wales registered their highest score at Twickenham, claiming the only try of the game through the Cardiff wing Adrian Hadley (top). Among those who never played for England again was a certain Clive Woodward.
England 9 Wales 8
The red-rose side led by Bill Beaumont ended up with a Grand Slam, but were considered vulnerable before a game politically charged by outbreaks of industrial strife in the Valleys. The visitors were the better side in a violent encounter but had flanker Paul Ringer sent off and their indiscipline cost them victory.
England 16 Wales 12
Wales had not lost at Twickenham since 1960 and travelled with confidence. Why wouldn't they have done, with Gerald Davies, J J Williams, Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards in the back division? Yet England outscored them by two tries to one, David Duckham and Andy Ripley touching down for the hosts.
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