Hodgson can be England's bright spark

There may be bigger and faster No 9s in the reckoning but none can match the wit and snappy distribution of the London Irishman
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The Independent Online

Paul Hodgson, who makes his first start as England's scrum-half against Argentina this weekend, was not overly blessed by the gods of rugby: certainly, their gifts to him did not include the acceleration of a Danny Care, or the freakish straight-line speed of a Joe Simpson, or the exaggerated physicality of a Harry Ellis. Instead, he made his own way to the top, drawing on unusually rich reserves of instinct and intelligence. He is the thinking man's No 9 who must have thought his moment would never come.

Hodgson did not quite have an "about time too" look on his face yesterday, but there was no mistaking the glint in his eye – or, indeed, his determination to maximise an opportunity that, for two long years, had been tantalisingly close without ever being quite close enough.

"Now I have a chance, it's important that I carry my club form into this game," the London Irish half-back said after beating Care to the run-on place against the South American tourists. "That means speaking in my own voice and having the courage to express an opinion. Yes, it's my first start, but the talking is something I relish and enjoy, something I do quite naturally. It's a part of the position, isn't it? There aren't many quiet scrum-halves around."

Just as there are very few players who give as much back to the grass-roots game that spawned them. Whenever Hodgson is not actively engaged on London Irish business, he spends his Sundays helping out well down the rugby food chain at the Sutton and Epsom club – or, if not there, along the road at Dorking. "It's my way of getting away from things," he explained. "When I'm at Epsom, for instance, I'm just another person. It's what keeps me humble."

Humility is not a quality always associated with England players at Test level, but Hodgson cannot be counted among those who have achieved a Miles Davis-like majesty when it comes to blowing their own trumpets. The pro-Hodgson music tends to come from his coaches: Toby Booth at London Irish, who has been fighting his corner all season, and Mike Ford, the England defence strategist, who yesterday described him as "an extra coach on the field – someone who brings fantastic energy and enthusiasm to the group".

Quite whether England can find a way of using Hodgson as productively as London Irish do – the Exiles often guarantee themselves quick ball from the tackle area by using the nearest available man as an emergency scrum-half and deploying Hodgson as first receiver in open field, secure in the knowledge that his game-management skills are comfortably good enough – is deeply questionable. When it comes to invention, to thinking outside the box, the likes of Booth and Mike Catt at the Madejski Stadium are far in advance of anything that is going on inside the red-rose set-up at Twickenham.

But the newcomer's sharp, snappy distribution during the closing stages of last weekend's defeat by the Wallabies at Twickenham suggested that even when he is ordered to operate within strict parameters, he has the ability to free-up a back division gasping for the oxygen of fast, quality possession. If Hodgson encourages Jonny Wilkinson and Shane Geraghty to play flatter and closer to the opposing midfield, one or two interesting things might happen.

This much is certain: if Saturday turns out to be a triumph, he will not forget the people who made it possible. "I had a wonderful rugby upbringing," he said. "My father coached me from the age of six, I spent quality time at Bristol with people like Paul Hull and Richard Hill, and when I made it into the England Under-18s team, someone fixed up for me to go down to Saracens and spend 45 minutes with Kyran Bracken, which was a real experience. I learned more in that three-quarters of an hour than in all my previous years put together."

Bracken is as well known for barking at the massive forwards in front of him as for his reluctance to say boo to a goose off the field. Hodgson is not dissimilar, but as he would privately acknowledge, it is far better that way round.

Profiling Paul: Hodgson's factfile

Position: Scrum-half

Born: 25 April 1982, Epsom

Height: 5ft 8in

Weight: 12st 2lb

Club Career

2001-04 Bristol

2004-present London Irish

London Irish's 2008 Player of the Season

International Career

2008 England debut v Ireland, Twickenham, March 2008; won 33-10

* Hodgson has won four England caps, all of which have come as a substitute

* Represented England at both under-18 and under-21 levels, as well as captaining his country at other junior levels

* Played for England in the Rugby World Sevens series