England's wanderer happy back in the pack

The nomadic lock Tom Palmer has finally settled in France but he feels most at home in the red-rose scrum, he tells Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, the quiet guy makes the most noise.

There are three France-based players in the current England Test squad: James Haskell, the loud-and-proud flanker who could be struck down with laryngitis and still give Jonathan Ross a lesson in talking fast; Jonny Wilkinson, the sainted outside-half who was almost as prolix and twice as impenetrable as Jean-Paul Sartre even before he started speaking the language; and Tom Palmer. Tom who? Exactly. The man charged with calling his country's line-out at Twickenham this afternoon is, by comparison, a Trappist. No player in recent memory has spent less time shouting the odds – or, indeed, shouting at all – than the second-row forward from Stade Français.

Yet, in many ways, Palmer is the most intriguing of the three, not least because he likes to do things differently. Last June, for instance, the 31-year-old went on honeymoon in Bali before getting married in one of the swankier communes of Paris. How arse-about-face is that? As a youngster, he played rugby for New Zealand Schools and two Scotland age-group sides before remembering he had been born in Harringay and opting for England. Unusual? You could say. As for the decision to put his international career at risk by embracing the European ideal... well, that really was an interesting move. There had been dire warnings from the red-rose hierarchy about the dangers of playing offshore. Palmer listened, then headed for the airport, passport in hand.

In a low-key, reticent kind of way, he is making it work for him, playing plenty of high-profile Top 14 rugby while avoiding the contractual hullabaloo over club-versus-country obligations that made his clubmate Haskell's life a misery during the last Six Nations Championship and steering clear of the general hullabaloo filling Wilkinson's every waking hour. "Jonny? He's all over the television in France," Palmer says. "Along with Sébastien Chabal, he seems to advertise everything. As for James, I'm glad to have him out there, taking the heat. He has a big, loud personality and he likes to court the media. He's also young, free and single, and lives in the middle of Paris. Me? I'm quiet, married and I live in the suburbs."

Haskell is further away from the England starting line-up than at any time since the last World Cup, having lost his bench place to the uncapped Leeds back-rower Hendre Fourie for this afternoon's contest with the All Blacks. Wilkinson is injured, as per usual, but even had he been fully in the pink, he would not have wrestled the No 10 shirt away from Toby Flood.

By contrast, Palmer is the only pure middle-jumping lock in the elite squad and must therefore be considered a clear first choice. It may not stay that way – should Martin Johnson, the manager, choose to beef things up by introducing the ambitious Dave Attwood or the ancient yet still functioning Simon Shaw as a specialist front-of-the-line operator, a vacancy will have to be created – but as things stand, the jersey is his to lose.

Palmer's international career has unfolded in a peculiar way. First capped as a 22-year-old playing Second Division rugby for Leeds – he made his debut off the bench against the United States in San Francisco while the grown-ups, Danny Grewcock and Johnson himself, were engaged on Lions business in Australia – he disappeared off the radar for four and a half years, returning only when Andy Robinson's tenure as England coach was in its death throes. Since then, he has been in and out, with the emphasis on the latter. To this day, he has only 16 caps to his name, the last two of which were earned in the squared series with the Wallabies in June.

"I've had my injuries, and they've generally been at the wrong times," he explains. "Also, I've had my bad luck. I don't want to sound like a whinger, but just after Andy told me I was a part of his plans and gave me a couple of starts, he was given the sack. Brian Ashton succeeded him, switched things around a little and suddenly, I was missing out again. Now, I'm feeling as secure as I've felt at any point in my career.

"More secure, probably. I shouldn't really say that, because things can change so quickly in this game. When you look at what happened to Steve Borthwick, it just goes to show. But I've played pretty well recently and the victory over the Australians in Sydney gave all of us some confidence. I'm well up for international rugby at the moment."

Internationalism is part and parcel of Palmer's make-up. After playing his mini-rugby in Barnet, he spent part of his childhood in Kenya (the birthplace, as coincidence would have it, of the aforementioned Shaw). He studied in the south island of New Zealand, attending Otago Boys' High School in Dunedin, and in Scotland, at Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh, before reading physics at Leeds University.

He stayed in Yorkshire for eight years and over the course of almost 200 games for Leeds – he was both the first player to be capped from the club and their youngest captain – he turned in performances of the highest quality, most memorably in the 2005 cup final victory over Bath.

If there was a criticism, it was that those performances were too heavily rationed. When he headed south to Wasps in 2006, Palmer found himself in a wholly different rugby environment – more ruthless, less forgiving. When the coaching staff saw glimpses of their new signing's passive side during a pre-season warm-up match, they told him his fortune in no uncertain terms.

His response? More consistency and more attitude. He nailed down a starting place alongside Shaw, his fellow "Africa hand", and started all nine games in a Heineken Cup campaign that brought the club a second European title in four seasons.

"The move from Leeds to Wasps was a culture shock in the rugby sense," he agrees, recalling endless gym-rat sessions and lashings of high-impact contact work at the London side's training base in Acton. And the move from the western edge of the English capital to the western reaches of the French one? What kind of shock was that? "A much bigger one, in all sorts of different ways. I'm a fairly well-travelled sort, but the language thing is a major issue. I'm learning fast, but I'm nowhere near as fluent as Jonny. Maybe that's why I don't get the advertising contracts.

"Actually, everything in France is different. We've had the rioting just recently – riots over a change in the law that raises the retirement age by a couple of years to 62! The cuts announced in England were a whole lot worse, but the people didn't take to the streets." Had the riots reached wealthy Vaucresson, where Palmer lives with his wife Helen? He shakes his head. "We've been lucky," he says.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Palmer is refreshingly open about the motives behind his move across the water. "There were two reasons for joining Stade Français, the first of them being that, financially, it made me far better off," he explains. "Secondly, it had always been an ambition to experience the French rugby scene. It's a good time to be playing there, because the league is stronger: it's not just about the big four any more, not with teams like Toulon and Racing Metro and Montpellier making such progress. Some of the best players from around the world are in France at the moment and the club scene is thriving."

Like Haskell, who apparently needs little persuasion to disrobe for the camera, Palmer has been photographed for the Stade Français calendar – an annual publishing event that might be seen as glitzy, embarrassing or borderline pornographic, depending on your point of view. "The latest version is not quite so camp as the previous one," he says, sounding just a little relieved. "I had to stand like this" – he adopts a cheerleader's pose, one leg bent at the knee – "and hold out a rugby ball." When advised that it might seem seriously camp to people in Leeds, he pauses for a second before nodding in agreement.

But Leeds is a long way behind him now. He and Helen were married in July – Palmer was on tour in June, hence the premature honeymoon – at the town hall in Vaucresson and held their reception at the Trianon Palace in Versailles, a hotel so ridiculously grand that even Clive Woodward thought twice before booking rooms for the England team in the late 1990s. All things considered, he is enjoying the high life, as any self-respecting middle jumper should.

From Harringay to Paris: Palmer's travels

*Tom Palmer was born in Harringay, north London, on 27 March 1979. He started playing mini-rugby for Barnet at the age of five.

*His family moved to Kenya during his early childhood after his father began work for Voluntary Services Overseas. Palmer later moved to Edinburgh as a teenager to begin secondary school. During this period he represented Scotland at U-19 and U-21 level, qualifying on residency grounds.

*In his late teens he spent two seasons in New Zealand where, while representing New Zealand Schoolboys, he played with future All Blacks Jerry Collins, Carl Hayman, Aaron Mauger and current captain Richie McCaw.

*The much-travelled forward returned to Britain in 1997 to begin a successful domestic career with Leeds Tykes, for whom he made 188 appearances. While at Leeds he earned the first of his 16 full England caps in a 48-19 victory over the US in California in June 2001.

*In the summer of 2006 Palmer left Leeds to sign for Wasps. He made 40 appearances, winning both the Heineken Cup (in 2007) and the Premiership (in 2008) during his three years at the club.

*In May 2009 he joined a growing list of England internationals to cross the channel when he joined the French Top 14 side Stade Français.

Elliot Dawson