Philippe Saint-André, the Frenchman responsible for some of the most bewilderingly brilliant tries ever scored on a rugby field, can also be credited with bringing the comic language of "Franglais" to full flower during two memorable spells as a Premiership coach. At Gloucester, he would begin his conversations with the Kingsholm groundsman with the words "Bonjour, man with beard", and while his grasp of spoken English had improved slightly by the time he was director of rugby at Sale, he was rarely mistaken for Stephen Fry. "Hello, friend of Nick," he would say whenever he ran into a member of Nick Johnson's state-of-the-art conditioning team.
Yet Saint-André had no problem putting a name to a face when it came to Ben Foden; indeed, he probably knew more about Foden than Foden knew about himself. To be precise, he understood that while the youngster from Chester was not quite an international scrum-half in the making, he certainly possessed the skill-set to make it as an international full-back. It was not a view Foden shared at the time and he quickly grew tired of understudying Richard Wigglesworth and Sililo Martens at Edgeley Park, heading for Northampton at the start of the 2008-09 season. And what did Northampton do? They played him at full-back whenever they could.
Less than two-and-a-half seasons on, Foden is looking like an automatic choice in a fresh-looking, unusually vibrant England side – no mean achievement, given that his most obvious challenger for the No 15 shirt, Delon Armitage of London Irish, had the same look about him not so very long ago and is fast rediscovering the form that deserted him during this year's Six Nations Championship. Indeed, Foden may well force Armitage into considering a new career as an outside centre, or even as a wing. If the England hierarchy can find a way of accommodating both men, it will be a case of "happy days" and "good times" rolled into one.
Not that Foden was in a good-time mood last November. With Armitage injured and England not obviously well placed to ask questions of the Argentine defence, let alone the Wallaby and All Black versions, Martin Johnson and his coaches picked everyone except the Northampton man: yes, even the Harlequins wing Ugo Monye, whose performances at full-back were almost as knee-clenchingly embarrassing as Gordon Brown's appearance on YouTube. Back in familiar and supportive surroundings at Franklin's Gardens, Foden let rip in public and earned himself a rollocking from Johnson. He would have to wait another four matches for the international start he craved, by which time Armitage had recovered his fitness but seen his confidence evaporate.
Even now, the protagonists in that little spat are sticking to at least some of their guns. "It's frustrating for anyone, being stranded in the mist and waiting desperately for it to clear," Foden says. "I'd worked hard on my game and I was full of belief. Before last autumn, when Delon was playing really well, I knew I'd have to be patient. When he was injured, I thought I'd get a chance. I didn't, and I was disappointed. It was a mistake to vent my frustrations in the way I did, but we all learn, don't we?"
The way the England attack coach Brian Smith sees it, the selectors were spot on in the way they played it. "Yes, Ben was impatient and frustrated," Smith agrees. "What else would you expect? I'd have been pretty surprised if he hadn't been all that and more. But we held him back for a reason. There's more to being an international full-back than having a hot running game, and with Ben there were issues – spatial issues, aerial issues, defensive issues – that we felt needed addressing.
"You have to remember that when he came to us, he was an international-class athlete who wanted to be a scrum-half. We took the view that he wasn't going to make it as a scrum-half, and it's taken some time to get him up to speed as a 15. He's far more comfortable now, much more complete. He kicks better than he did, he shuts the gate defensively... he's shaping up into what I would call a top-drawer Test full-back."
That much was obvious a fortnight ago, when Foden trumped his encouraging performances against the French in Paris and the Australians in Sydney with a finely-tuned, thoroughly accomplished and, at times, thrilling display against the All Blacks in the first of these autumn internationals. He also had his moments against the Wallabies last week, but as he admitted with a rueful shake of the head, he was no more than a bit-part player in that exhilarating victory.
"I loved it, being involved in a win of that quality," he says, "but things didn't open up for me in the way they did for Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto. I had no holes to run into, no overlaps to exploit. Do I care? Do I hell. That performance had been brewing for a while, and when we finally got it out of ourselves, we all revelled in it. For so long, we've been told that the southern hemisphere teams are the only ones capable of throwing the ball around and playing a really modern, dynamic game. Suddenly, people understand that we're capable of it, too."
It is becoming increasingly apparent that England are basing much of their game on Northampton's sharp-edged, fiercely direct brand of rugby. "I certainly feel that what I do at club level translates very effectively," Foden agrees. "In the Premiership, we have props like Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati making the hard yards for us and opening things up. With England, we have people like Andrew Sheridan, Dan Cole and David Wilson performing the same kind of role with the same kind of aggression.
"It's not about forwards just sticking it up the jumper: those days have gone. It's about high-impact, high-intensity, confrontational rugby played at pace, and with a lot of variation."
So where was the tipping point? When did it finally dawn on England that a narrowly-focused, close-quarter, kick-driven game was the way backward, rather than the way forward? "There was something about the game in Paris last March that changed things," replies Foden, who finally made it into the starting line-up for that match.
"We'd just drawn up in Scotland in a pretty poor game, people were looking hard at us, a lot of things were being said and written. France were going for the Slam and were big favourites, yet we had this really strong sense that we could take them on, really ask them questions. Contrary to almost every England-France game in history, the rain helped them, not us. Had the wet weather not closed the game off, I believe we would have won.
"Then came the Test against the Wallabies in Perth, which was really weird. There was such a sense of expectation in the dressing room, such a buzz: the mood was really positive. And somehow, we let the game pass us by. I couldn't work it out. We all came in, sat down and said: 'What the hell happened there?' It was another tipping point, I guess. In the week leading into the second Test in Sydney, we agreed that if we were going to beat the Australians, we'd have to play some rugby against them. We did play some rugby, and we won.
"I think that really put us on track. Against the All Blacks a couple of weeks ago, we did some good things once again. The trouble was, we didn't do them early enough, often enough or quite well enough, and we paid the price. The encouraging aspect of it was the sense of frustration. New Zealand are the number-one team in the world, but we all felt we could have beaten them. We were determined to put it right against Australia last Saturday, and we went into the game with a very clear understanding of what it was all about."
If anyone knows what he is about these days, it is Foden. He may not quite bring the sense of comfort-blanket security that defined Matthew Perry's long tour of duty as England's last line of defence, and he may not run out of his own 22 with quite the élan of Jason Robinson. But he has something of both players in his make-up, and it sets him apart from the common herd. At this stage in the World Cup cycle, Johnson would happily have settled for something slightly less.Reuse content