There have been some minor developments on the England front since Olly Morgan made his bolt-from-the-blue international debut in the opening match of the 2007 Six Nations Championship, against Scotland at Twickenham. For one thing, the team reached a second successive World Cup final; for another, the Rugby Football Union rewarded Brian Ashton for his success in that tournament by giving him the bum's rush with barely a word of explanation. Oh yes, one other item of interest. The governing body has managed to negotiate a deal with the Premiership clubs that denies the Test selectors access to some of the form players in the country. Brilliant.
Morgan is one of those form players. Everyone says so, including the Gloucester coach Dean Ryan, who generally showers praise on his employees in the way Judge Jeffreys showered mercy on defendants. What is more, he is a form player in a problem position. England are rather up a gum tree at full-back, with Josh Lewsey barely able to perform the simplest of duties, unless it involves thumping Danny Cipriani for being too cocky, and Mathew Tait trapped in a strange half-life at Sale, for whom he performs enough different roles in the course of 80 minutes to pass an audition for the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
Given a free hand, the new England manager Martin Johnson and his principal sidekick, the attack coach Brian Smith, would be looking very closely at Morgan with a view to running him against the Pacific Islands in the first of next month's home internationals. They would also be looking at Nick Abendanon of Bath and, perhaps, Mike Brown of Harlequins. But they do not have a free hand, or anything resembling one. Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of the clubs' umbrella group Premier Rugby, made this abundantly clear last week when he confirmed that players could not be promoted to the England squad on form until January. "Any move to do that would cut right across the deal we've struck," McCafferty said, adding pointedly that "this was the agreement England wanted".
Abendanon and Brown are the two full-backs in the second-string Saxons party. Only in the event of an injury to a nominated full-back in the elite squad could one or other be moved up – always assuming, of course, that Bath or Quins did not suspect England of trying to pull a fast one. In that event, the two sides would have to go to arbitration. Morgan, not selected in either party because of concerns over his fitness, cannot be promoted whatever happens. He must wait until the new year, when Johnson will be permitted to change up to five players in the senior group.
Wisely, Morgan is keeping his nose out of this complicated affair. "I know it sounds boring," he said this week after being selected for this evening's fascinating Heineken Cup opener with Biarritz at Kingsholm, "but there's no point my thinking about anything other than Gloucester. I'm getting some rugby behind me now, which is a welcome relief after the run of injuries I've had, and if I'm still playing well come Christmas, we'll see what happens.
"Of course, I'm aware of all the hype and comment surrounding the England full-back position, and I suppose it's true that in respect of the No 15 shirt, nothing is absolutely nailed on. I feel I'm playing better rugby now than when Brian Ashton picked me for my first international and while I've had my frustrations with injury, I don't look at the situation now and worry that there are obstacles in front of me that I can't get past. There again, I can think of four or five people off the top of my head who are chasing the place. Right now, I'm best off concentrating on doing all the right things at club level. The rest will take care of itself."
Unlike the vast majority of his rivals, Morgan is a pure full-back. He spent a little time at outside centre during his years at Millfield School, but as Ashton said after calling him in at short notice for the Calcutta Cup match last year: "To all intents and purposes he's been a full-back all his rugby life, and I'm not being disparaging when I say he has the values of an old-fashioned No 15. He's not a converted anything." This was important to the coach, who was excited by the prospect of fielding someone who was not a converted outside-half like Lewsey, or a converted centre like Tait, or a converted rugby league player like Jason Robinson.
Long-striding in a manner reminiscent of Jon Webb, who played full-back for England in the first two World Cups, the 22-year-old has based his game around the high-achieving Wallaby practitioner Matthew Burke, who recently called time on his club career with Newcastle. "He was the one I idolised when I was making my way through the age groups," Morgan said. "There was nothing flamboyant about him – just a complete mastery of the core skills, together with this wonderful sense of calm. Nothing ever seemed to affect him, to knock him off his game. I made my Premiership debut for Gloucester against Newcastle, and he was there on the other side of halfway. That was quite something."
Yet if Morgan yearns to be an English Burke, so to speak, there are those who see him more in the Matt Perry mould. Perry was by some distance the finest defensive full-back to wear the white shirt in recent memory, and the Gloucester man's work under the high ball is similarly accomplished. Morgan enjoys a tackle, too, but unlike Perry, who had complete command of the art, he occasionally gets it wrong and pays the price.
"Sure, I've been knocked out once or twice," he acknowledged. "People have remarked that I sometimes put my head in a bad position when I'm tackling; after I hurt my neck down at Bath a few weeks ago, Dennis Betts [the Gloucester defence coach] mentioned that I might want to look at my positioning from a self-protection point of view. But it's a split-second thing, isn't it? As a full-back, my job is to bring the bloke down no matter what. At the end of the day, someone out there is trying to run over me and I'm trying to stop him."
As a matter of fact, the odd bout of concussion has been the least of Morgan's problems. He has had his share of shoulder issues – "The dislocation in Bourgoin last season was a bad one; I had this really odd sensation that my shoulder wasn't where it should be, and then the pain kicked in when they put it back together in the dressing room" – and suffered a truly grisly leg injury during a late-season Premiership game at Wasps in May. It was the after-effects of this that cost him a place in one of the two England squads selected by Johnson in July.
"I picked up what I thought was a 'dead' leg, which isn't exactly rare in rugby," he recalled. "Everyone gets them. Come the following Tuesday, my quad muscle blew right up. It was eight centimetres bigger than the other one, and it turned out I'd burst a blood vessel. I was in a fair bit of pain, so my girlfriend rushed me to the hospital. It got so bad, they put me on gas and air. It looked as though I would need surgery – the doctor told me the scar would run from my knee to my hip, and that I'd need a skin graft – but when they checked the damage, they found the pressure on my quad had gone down. It was the end of my season, but at least I was spared the operation."
If Morgan is frustrated at the way his international career has stalled, he does not show it for a second. "I enjoyed my taste of life with England – although we lost pretty heavily against Ireland at Croke Park in 2007 and I lasted only half an hour before being hurt, I put that down as the biggest occasion of my rugby life – and it goes without saying that I want more of it. But I'm prepared to wait for my opportunity. I'm still a young guy completely in love with rugby, and if I haven't had the best of luck, I'm not complaining. Why would I when there are games like this one against Biarritz ahead of me?"
A good point, well made. Two years ago, when he first appeared in an injury-decimated England squad training at Loughborough University ahead of the autumn internationals that ended Andy Robinson's spell in charge of the national side, he startled the coaches with his confidence and maturity. "He looks like the real thing," said Ashton, who was running the backs at the time. Ashton may well turn out to have been right. Not that England's supporters can expect to find out until January.
Four more at fifteen
Olly Morgan isn't the only contender to be England's last line of defence:
Nick Abendanon A counter-attacker in the Christian Cullen tradition, Abendanon would hardly be slumming it with the second-string Saxons had Martin Johnson picked his England squad last weekend rather than last July. Stiletto sharp in attack and increasingly dependable in defence, he is the talk of the town down Bath way.
For all kinds of reasons, Brown had a thoroughly miserable time of it on England's ill-starred summer visit to New Zealand, and was demoted to the Saxons squad as a consequence. However, he has recovered from his "Auckland Four" trauma, impressing with his aggressive running and big-boom kicking game.
Dropped by Brian Ashton last season and reinstated by Johnson for this one, the World Cup winner has been struggling so badly for form at full-back that the Wasps hierarchy recently shifted him to the wing. This weekend, he plays at outside centre – another positional change that will not help his cause.
England seem set on playing the best outside centre in the country at full-back. Sale, meanwhile, are busily muddying the waters by running him in a variety of different positions, depending on who has the ball and where. Not for the first time, the ultra-flexible Tait must feel he is being messed around.
Full-back Olly Morgan has featured twice for England, starting the Six Nations opener aganist Scotland in March 2007 before being taken off injured against Ireland at Croke Park later that month.