Shane Geraghty settles in to an armchair by an open fire in a lounge at England's opulent hotel and reflects with the merest hint of relief on passing Martin Johnson's mettle-detecting test. "Being out of the main squad was more motivation than being in it," says Geraghty. "I had to go down a few pegs to get back up."
The obvious contrast is with Danny Cipriani, who has reportedly argued and postured his way on to a Johnson blacklist of non-conformists. The 23-year-old Geraghty is set to start for his country at inside-centre against Australia next Saturday, nine months on from receiving the England manager's version of the hairdryer treatment after the briefest of Twickenham appearances against Italy.
"I had 15 minutes and spent 10 of those in the sin bin," Geraghty recalls. The dressing room afterwards was a wall – or four walls – of silence, but with telling looks in the coaches' eyes. "It was at breakfast on the Tuesday that Johnno told me they were going with Toby Flood on the bench in the next match against Wales."
Johnson cited experience and goal-kicking in his selection, and not the yellow card, but the snub continued through the ensuing defeats in Cardiff and Ireland, with Andy Goode and Flood given the fly-half role that Geraghty coveted. The No 12 jersey had become the property of Riki Flutey, initially an experimental choice by England's attack coach, Brian Smith.
A month and a day after his Italian odd-job, Geraghty broke a hand playing for London Irish, a few weeks off ensued and he wound up with Cipriani on the Saxons' Churchill Cup trip to Denver. A third-class ticket, in effect, with the Lions on tour and England busy facing the Barbarians and Argentina.
Geraghty was asked to play for the Barbarians, but Johnson vetoed it. Still, when toys might have been jettisoned from prams, Geraghty kept his counsel in Colorado.
"I'd been through a bit of bad press at the time over agreeing to move from London Irish to Northampton so I was just keen to play rugby. And I started off with Northampton this season really wanting to do well for them. Soon Smithy was on the phone and coming to see me." And what of Cipriani, Geraghty's England academy and age-group contemporary? "He knows he's going to be judged on his rugby, judged by his performances on the pitch," says Geraghty.
Cipriani, of course, is injured now. So too Flutey, Flood and Jordan Turner-Hall, which has helped clear Geraghty's path. It's not so much swings and roundabouts with England as a full-blown theme park of anatomical rollercoasters.
Geraghty has never had an injury-free season and he has won only three caps – each of them as a replacement – since his well-received debut against France in March 2007. It is ironic that he should be forming a new-look England midfield with Jonny Wilkinson, king of the physiotherapy couch. "We have never played together," says Geraghty. "But I did get to know him a bit in an England camp when we were rehabbing on weights at Twickenham. I said my shoulder is sore here..." – he lifts his arm at an angle – "and Jonny said, 'yeah, mine's sore in the same place'."
Now, in this hotel lounge and talking of Australia – he recalls the former England coach Brian Ashton advising him to model every facet of his play on the Wallabies' Matt Giteau – Geraghty says: "I've got an open fire at home. Sometimes I'll put a message on Facebook: 'Just relaxing by the fire'."
Earlier, Wilkinson had sat next to Johnson and described the "environment" as "hugely challenging and massively supportive". At 30, Wilkinson wistfully remembers when he was Geraghty's age and regarded Mike Catt, then about 28, as the old man of the England squad. Catt, coincidentally, was Geraghty's long-time mentor at London Irish. "Shane can shred a defence with his own attacking flair, but he can also make the odd howler," Catt said last week. "That's where Jonny will be good for him, being his eyes and ears."
At fly-half for Northampton last week, Geraghty got caught between game plans – the team's and his own vision – with a fluffed, charged-down kick. There was an element of fatigue after a stand-out display in the Heineken Cup defeat of Munster and a tough trip to Perpignan. Yesterday's rest from Saints' match against Leicester will have done him good, as half measures won't do against Australia, with Argentina and New Zealand to follow.
So how will Geraghty dovetail with his one-time hero, Wilkinson, whose last Test was the 2007 World Cup final, assuming they are in the team to be named by Johnson on Tuesday? "England are lucky to have coaches who tailor the game plan to everybody's strengths," says Geraghty. "If we do play, we will be interchanging 10 and 12, sharing the workload of the kicking and communicating and the calls. Getting over the gainline by using [Matt] Banahan off his wing and whoever's at 13 because they're bigger ball-carriers and are going to suck in more defenders. Then to use me or Jonny second-phase when we get quick ball to put people into space.
"We have been working in training, getting to know each other, mixing things up, when I might come on the switch and so on. Not mind-numbing hitting up through 12 and 13, just bringing an all-round balance hopefully. It works in training, we'll wait to see if it works in the game.
"Jonny has probably learned off Catty, and it's good for me to have someone similar, always talking in my ear, say, if I'm at 10, and he wants a ball out the back... Always talking, and I've got to do that as well. Telling him, 'hit me' or 'hit the forwards'. I'm slowly getting used to telling him what to do."
And is Wilkinson on Facebook? "I wouldn't have thought so," he says. "If he is, I'm not friends with him." If their on-field partnership works, even Johnson's face might be all aglow.Reuse content