Whatever the Nigerian-born centre Ayoola Erinle brings to the England midfield on his first Test start this weekend, it is unlikely to be a kicking game that will leave some of the world's more rounded No 12s – Berrick Barnes of Australia, Luke McAlister of New Zealand, Felipe Contepomi of Argentina – wondering where they went wrong. "What makes you think Ayoola will have to kick the ball?" asked Martin Johnson when asked about the newcomer's lack of an educated right foot. Erinle's fellow centre, Dan Hipkiss, put it another way. "I've kicked twice in my Premiership career," he said with a smile, "so I guess that makes me the one with the boot."
Erinle and Hipkiss played together for Leicester in last season's Heineken Cup final before the former left for Biarritz, but the man from Lagos has yet to perform the inside-centre role during his time in the Basque country. While no complete stranger to the No 12 shirt, he is hardly one of life's Shane Geraghtys.
Perhaps this is why he has replaced Geraghty in the starting line-up, much to the surprise – and, indeed, disappointment – of those intrigued by the potential of the Northampton youngster's southern hemisphere-style "five-eighths" partnership with Jonny Wilkinson. "I'm not Shane and I'm not going out there to razzle-dazzle the New Zealanders," Erinle remarked. "I'll play to my own strengths, which is bringing something abrasive to the back division."
When it comes to route-one rugby, Erinle has at least as much of what it takes as any centre available to England and considerably more than most. Yet the 29-year-old might never have played the sport at all. "It was compulsory at school but I tried to get out of it," confessed the pharmacy student, who put his university course on hold when Biarritz offered him a contract. "But something clicked suddenly and I began to enjoy it. I was a big lad and quite quick. That helped get me noticed."
He has had his fallow periods over the years. Injuries blighted him during the five years he spent at Wasps, while Leicester packed him off to Nottingham on a loan deal. "Things never pan out quite the way you expect, but I thank God that I've been able to roll with it and now find myself in a position to repay those who have shown faith in me," said Erinle, very much a man of faith himself. "From the moment you start playing to the day you hang up your boots, you want to represent your country. I feel a great weight of responsibility, but it's for the professional sportsman to rise to the challenge."
As anticipated, he will find himself up against another prime physical specimen in Ma'a Nonu on Saturday. The powerful centre from Wellington features in a stellar back line, alongside Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Conrad Smith, Daniel Carter and the much talked-about freshman on the wing, Zac Guildford.Reuse content