Long time, no see. Ben Foden's international career, once positively awash with promise, began to dry up when he mangled his ankle ligaments while playing for Northampton against Bath a little over a year ago, and he has been lost in the desert of non-selection ever since. "I've had a lot of things happen to me," he said, "but that injury was the hardest thing to bear."
It cost him his hard-earned place in the squad for last year's autumn internationals, and in his desperation to reclaim it, he returned to big-time club rugby far more quickly than was good for him. "I played when my ankle was only 70-80 per cent right," he confessed, "and when you do that, people notice. When people notice, you slip down the pecking order. When you're young, you think your bones are made of diamonds and that you won't break. I broke."
Having pieced himself back together again – properly, this time – he at least feels he is in the right condition to remind Stuart Lancaster and the rest of the England coaching team of the things he brings to the national team's attacking game: straight-line speed, a sense of adventure and, perhaps most important of all, a finisher's instinct.
Foden may not love the left wing duties he will perform on Saturday in the way he cherishes the full-back role, but after 18 long months of bitter frustration, he is more than happy to accept the shirt on offer. What makes him happier still is the opportunity to help his old Northampton clubmate and close friend Chris Ashton find a way out of the doldrums.
"It's been a while since we were in the team together," Foden said, casting his mind back to the drawn game with the Springboks in Port Elizabeth in the summer of 2012. "He hasn't been having the greatest time in the England shirt, so I hope I'll be a reassuring presence for him. We've always had a laugh and a joke, always bounced off each other, always had a mutual understanding of what we're trying to create as a partnership."
Foden's primary target is a return to the full-back position, but he accepts that this may not come his way any time soon. Mike Brown is the man in possession and a strong performance against the Wallabies last weekend pretty much cemented the Harlequin's place for the remainder of the autumn.
"He's been outstanding for the last two years, which has been good for Mike and good for England," Foden said, generously. "That's the thing about falling from grace, as I did: there are so many people in the mix, waiting to take advantage. All I can do right now is make the best of this opportunity, because the wing positions are pretty competitive too. Marland Yarde went down injured this week; Christian Wade went down too. If they'd stayed fit, I'd have struggled to get a look in."
Having not played on the wing since that day in the Eastern Cape, he is asking a lot of himself to trip the light fantastic on Saturday – especially as the Pumas are far more knowing in the back division than they like to let on.
"I'm confident in my ability, though," he said. "The thing about playing as much at full-back as I have is that you have a very good idea of what you want your wings to be doing, especially in defence. I'll be going at this one no holds barred."
Second place plan: England aim for No 2 spot
Stuart Lancaster has set England the target of replacing South Africa in second place in the world rankings by the end of the season.
England are third in the standings and are hoping to register their ninth victory in 10 matches when they play Argentina at Twickenham. New Zealand have a near-unassailable lead at the summit of the IRB's rating system, but Lancaster believes South Africa can be caught. "Our win against Australia on Saturday has widened the gap between us and fourth," he said. "If we can keep our winning record up we'll close the gap."Reuse content