Last summer, Phil Dowson caught a flight to California, which was just about far enough away to allow him to forget things for a while – things like Heineken Cup final defeat, World Cup selection trauma, the union game in general. He could have turned out for the second-string England Saxons team in the Churchill Cup, but as he had played God's amount of tough rugby over the previous few seasons and already knew he had missed the cut for the global event in New Zealand, what was the point? Better to spend some time with friends in the West Coast sunshine, enjoy a beer or two and rest his tired muscles before returning home and finding another brick wall against which to bang his head.
"It was," the Northampton forward said this week, a few hours after receiving blissful confirmation that he would, at long last, win a first full England cap against Scotland at Murrayfield today, "one of my better decisions. I was feeling disappointed with life at that point: after losing the Heineken Cup final in the way we did, being told I wasn't even in the World Cup training squad was a real blow. Those three weeks in America made a huge difference. I'd grown used to playing for the Saxons in June, having a fortnight off and going straight back into pre-season with my hamstring still playing up or my calf muscle still hurting. This time, I had myself a proper holiday. When I returned to the club in July, I was raring to go."
There has been no stopping him since, to the extent that the wall has finally given way. When Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach of the national side, mentioned to Dowson that he would indeed wear the No 8 shirt on Calcutta Cup day, there were deep and meaningful smiles on the faces of both men. "It was a private moment," said Lancaster, whose relationship with Dowson stretches back many a season, "and a nice moment." The player agreed. "What did I feel when he told me? Excitement, predominantly." And some relief, surely. "Well, it's been a struggle," he said. "It's taken so long."
Dowson is one of rugby's givers: if there is a colleague, past or present, who has a bad word to say about him as a player or a leader – one who questions, even for a second, the 30-year-old's capacity for self-sacrifice in the common cause – he has yet to open his mouth in public. But too often, the Guildford-born back-rower is damned with faint praise: pigeonholed, in a manner that is almost patronising, as a black-belted master of the close-quarter arts, rather than lauded for his command of a wide range of back-row virtues. In reality, he can play as much football as most and more than many. He did, after all, help England to a World Cup Sevens title in Hong Kong.
Which is not to say that his versatility – he is comfortable performing all three back-row roles – has been wholly advantageous. Some of the most celebrated loose forwards of the modern age have pulled the same three-in-one trick: Lawrence Dallaglio, in the years before knee and ankle gave way and turned him into a latter-day Dean Richards; Richard Hill, whose genius for understatement did not make his rugby any less brilliant; the All Black maestro Michael Jones, who was a genius, full stop. Dowson does not fall into that category, or anything close to it. He has generally been seen as an "honest professional" whose positional flexibility makes him valuable, but not indispensable. It is as if he drives to training in a van bearing the logo "No Job Too Small – Free Estimates".
But odd-job men rarely go about their work with the kind of ruthlessness Dowson routinely displays at Premiership level. During his years at Newcastle, the club he joined after completing his education in the North of England, it frequently seemed as though he and he alone was loading the bullets for Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Jamie Noon, Mathew Tait and Tom May to fire. When he moved to Northampton, home to a real pack of forwards rather than a lightweight eight adept only at moving backwards faster than Steve Redgrave in his Olympic prime, he quickly established himself as the first among equals.
To Dowson, a sense of personal responsibility is the key element in a player's make-up, and he puts into practice the things he preaches. When Northampton lost to Leicester in an outstanding Heineken Cup final last May – they let slip a 22-6 lead, losing their flanker to the sin bin in the process – he publicly blamed himself. "I made a poor decision," he admitted that day. "I don't know whether it was the sole reason for the momentum change in the game, but it didn't help. When you're on the receiving end of a surge like that and you lose a man for 10 minutes, it's not the best."
At that point, he had no idea where he stood in England's scheme of things. "I haven't the faintest idea who's thinking what," he told this newspaper at the time. A few weeks later he was advised he would not be needed at the World Cup and that there was no burning need for him to play for the Saxons, given that the hierarchy already knew enough about him. Disappointed as he was, Dowson relished the prospect of a proper summer's break and, having been assured that no rival back-rower would suddenly materialise on the England roster out of left field, he agreed to give the Churchill Cup a miss.
Under the circumstances, it was easy to imagine his feelings when, in putting the World Cup training squad together, the red-rose manager Martin Johnson called up Thomas Waldrom, an uncapped No 8 from New Zealand, ahead of both Dowson and the Gloucester forward Luke Narraway. While Narraway took to Twitter to record his frustration, albeit in jocular fashion, Dowson kept his counsel. "Twitter? I don't do Twitter," he said a couple of days ago. "I'm 30, for God's sake. Far too old for that sort of thing." If there is a knighthood going spare – Plain Fred Goodwin's, for instance – it should go to England's new No 8 for services on behalf of the technologically bewildered.
If it is unusual for a player to be a new cap and a senior figure at one and the same time, his elevated status in this profoundly inexperienced England side makes sense. He knows Lancaster well – the coach has long admired the competitive edge Dowson brings to a team – and feels sufficiently at ease in the red-rose environment to make his views known. "I don't see it as a responsibility, especially," he remarked. "It comes naturally to me because I've been playing the game for so long. I've always said my piece wherever I've been, so when Stuart tells me he wants me to pipe up I'm more than happy to do it.
"Stuart has been brilliant in bringing the team together in a short space of time. And I like the way Chris Robshaw [the new captain] has been speaking. He's very eloquent: it seems to me that all the captaincy fundamentals are there. Of course, we're not going to be leaving him out there on his own. There are enough people in the side who have been around a bit at international level – Charlie Hodgson, Tom Croft – to help him when needed."
There are those who believe that a thirtysomething striver who finally wins himself a Test cap will not be in the side for long, and in Dowson's case, there is a suspicion that a couple of early Six Nations defeats and the return of his Northampton clubmate Tom Wood from injury might lead to a radical rethink. But as he is in control of his own immediate future for once, he is of a mind to press home the advantage.
"I played my first Saxons game back in 2005, which seems a lifetime ago," he said. "Then, I'd get excited about England squad announcements: I'd find out when they were going to be made and really work myself up about it. As I've matured, I've taken a different approach. Now, I speak to the coaches directly and ask them where I am in the pecking order and what areas of my game need developing. But it amounts to the same thing: basically, I've always wanted to be here, where I am now, and I want as much of it as I can get.
"Have I changed my game to get here? Not really. If you change too much in an effort to get picked, you land yourself in difficulties. Have I improved my game? Yes. Since I've been at Northampton, my conditioning has improved and I've made more of an impact as a result. I've always made a lot of tackles: now, I make more tackles that are telling. I've always carried the ball: now, I carry it more strongly." If that proves to be the case at Murrayfield today, he may stick around a little longer than expected.
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