Different rules apply

Sir Clive Woodward dismissed him as a robot. Under Ian McGeechan he's becoming a force to be feared as the key physical contests approach. So what does Joe Worsley himself think about his Lions resurgence? Chris Hewett finds out
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The Independent Online

Joe Worsley, visionary. It is not a description Sir Clive Woodward would recognise.

To Woodward, who presided over the first five years of the back-row forward's international career, Worsley was less than the sum of his formidable parts: a rugby-playing robot designed and pieced together in a laboratory somewhere, a man who could be trusted to perform any number of specific duties – provided, of course, he had been programmed correctly during the build-up to a game – but could not, or would not, go off-script as a means of expressing himself as an individual.

Yet the church of rugby opinion is a broad one, and there are some very senior coaches who dismiss Woodward's view as arrant nonsense (much to Worsley's satisfaction, for by the time the knight of the realm walked out on England in 2004, there was little love lost between them). Shaun Edwards, who works with the flanker at Wasps, is among those who tell a very different tale about the Londoner, who will celebrate his 32nd birthday tomorrow week.

It was Edwards who, a few minutes after yesterday's team announcement for this afternoon's eagerly-awaited contest with the aggressive Free State Cheetahs, used the v-word in Worsley's connection. "Yes, I'd say he has great defensive vision," said the Lions assistant coach, who loves defence in all its manifestations the way South Africans love red meat. "People underestimate it as a quality in a player, because they generally associate vision with attack. But a top defensive player – and I would unhesitatingly put Joe in that category – needs it too.

"In a sense, it's easier to attack than defend, because when you have the ball, you're running the plays you've prepared. When you don't have it, you have to open your eyes and live on your wits. Opponents don't make a habit of telling you what they're going to do: a player has to read them like a book before he can start chopping them down. That's what Joe does as well as anyone I've come across during my time in union."

Today, Worsley will be expected to win his personal contest with Heinrich Brussow, the local Bloemfontein boy whose recent performances in the Super 14 tournament might easily have propelled him into the Springbok squad for the forthcoming Test series. (Much to the spitting anger of the Free State's fanatical rugby population, Brussow came up just short). In addition, the Lions need him to set the tone for a defensive effort likely to be far more central to the outcome of the game than it was in Wednesday night's 74-point canter at Ellis Park.

Ian McGeechan and his lieutenants did not plan it this way. Initially, they decided to run a very different kind of open-side flanker, the supremely creative Martyn Williams of Wales, against the Cheetahs. But late in the day – so late, indeed, that the manager Gerald Davies was unaware of the change when he read out the team in that uniquely ceremonial way of his – the medical staff decided Williams' dodgy shoulder was not worth risking. In an instant, the coaches turned to the Englishman, who had played on the other side of the back row in the opening fixture in Rustenburg.

"To be honest, I don't think too deeply about the specifics of the two roles," says Worsley, who generally plays blind-side at Wasps but reinvigorated his career at international level with a series of heavy-tackling, eye-catching displays for his country in the Six Nations Championship. "I half wondered whether I'd end up playing both at some point during this tour, so I'm not surprised. It's no great headache: there are a few of us here – Tom Croft, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace – who move around a bit, and with the difference between positions becoming more blurred, the risks of being caught betwixt and between are less now than they were."

Worsley found the opening fixture of the tour something of a trial. "It was a combination of hard training, a lot of travelling, the effects of altitude and not having played for four weeks," he explains. "At times, I felt like a zombie. When you're struggling in the lung department, the rest of your game is bound to suffer. I'm hoping for the polar opposite in this match, because we've spent a lot more time on the high veld and we're more accustomed to the thin air."

Nine years ago, when he first toured this country and inevitably found himself on the veld – England have not played a Test on the South African coast since the wet-weather game in Cape Town at the end of the 1998 "Tour of Hell" – he faced an added problem, of the fruit variety. "Someone hit me in the head with an orange while we were warming up for a game in Kimberley," he recalls, with some bemusement. "They were positively welcoming, the people up there."

Since those fun and games in Griqualand West, he has started four Tests against the Springboks and run into them another four times off the bench. If the losses have been painful – his first tangle with South Africa in 2000 ended in a narrow and controversial defeat; the reverse at Twickenham in 2006 signalled the end of Andy Robinson's tenure as England coach; the failure in the World Cup final a year later cut everyone to the quick – there have been victories as well, most notably the convincing performances in 2001 and 2004. Worsley played a full part in both of those matches.

Yet it is only now that the Lions have come calling for his services. There was nothing doing for him under Graham Henry in Australia eight years ago, and Woodward repeatedly ignored his claims in New Zealand four years later, despite Worsley's remarkably effective Premiership final performance for Wasps against Leicester. (That day, he gave one of those selected ahead of him, Neil Back, such a torrid time that Back punched him in full view of the Twickenham crowd and earned himself a suspension that kept him out of the first leg of the tour).

"I can't tell you at the moment how a big Lions occasion compares to playing an important World Cup match for England, because the Test series is still to come," he says. "But of course, every player sees a Lions trip as something special and yearns to experience one. This is a huge honour, being involved in this trip, and with the guys winning in the way they did in Johannesburg on Wednesday, it's for those of us playing in this game to lay down a marker of our own. And the best way to do that is to stay within the team environment, not go outside the remit and not go off on your own."

This is precisely the kind of remark that may have rankled with Woodward. There again, Woodward's approach with the Lions in New Zealand was nothing much to write home about. The current coaches are doing things very differently, and all five of them – McGeechan, Edwards, Warren Gatland, Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree – have either worked closely with Worsley at club level or played alongside him in an England shirt. Clearly, they have a faith in his ability that some notable others failed to summon.

"The thing with Joe," said Edwards, "is that people don't like playing against him. He makes life difficult for them because he stops them doing what they want to do. That's a big thing in rugby. Also, he has the bit between his teeth right now. He had a rough time with injuries not so long ago, but with a shot at a Lions tour coming up, he really put some work in last summer. This is the reward for all that effort."

Most Lions followers see the contest for the Test No 7 shirt as a two-horse race between Williams and Wallace. But when, in his quiet moments of reflection, McGeechan sees the formidable Springbok back-row trio of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies in his mind's eye, his thoughts also turn to Worsley. Somewhere along the line, those big South African oaks will need cutting down. You do not have to be too much of a visionary to wonder whether a man nicknamed the "tree feller" might find himself in the mix.

English oak: Worsley's career

*Joe Worsley

Age 31

Born London

Position Back row

Club Wasps

Honours Premiership 2004, 2005, 2008; Heineken Cup 2004, 2007

England caps 70

Points 45

Test debut vs Tonga, 15 October 1999

*In 1994, Worsley became the youngest player to play for England Under-21s.

*He made his debut for the British and Irish Lions last Saturday, in the 37-25 win over the Royal XV in Rustenburg.

*Worsley's nickname is 'Tree Feller'.

*Is the Honorary President of the charity Wooden Spoon, which seeks to improve the lives of disadvantaged children.

*He was awarded an MBE as part of the World Cup winning squad in 2003, in which he featured in three games – coming on against South Africa and starting against Samoa and Uruguay.

*Worsley says he hates rugby songs and would rather spend his time playing the piano.