If the Twickenham faithful suddenly detect a low, rumbling sound originating from somewhere near the earth’s core – the sound of the recently retired folk-hero prop Andrew Sheridan spinning in his sporting grave – it will be because an Australian, of all nationalities on the planet, has suddenly materialised in the very last place anyone would expect to find him: at the sharp end of the England scrum.
Sheridan was not the only red-rose front-rower of recent vintage to gorge himself silly on a variety of Wallaby opponents in the way a fully grown English mastiff might feast on a bowl of dog biscuits, but the all-consuming nature of his performances set him apart. Matt Dunning and Al Baxter were the Aussie forwards who copped the worst of it from the man known as Big Ted and, while there is a little more substance to the green and gold set piece nowadays, it is still difficult to imagine them winning next year’s World Cup through their scrummaging prowess.
Yet there is an Australian prop of the tight-head variety who looks the part, and as he is performing over here in the Premiership and happens to qualify for England, the odds are shortening on him making an international debut for the land of his maternal grandmother rather than the land of his birth. His name is Kieran Longbottom, he plays for Saracens, and those who work most closely with him in north London – men like Mark McCall, the rugby director, and Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach – think he is the real deal. It is also true to say that Longbottom has taken up residence in the thoughts of Stuart Lancaster and his colleagues in the national hierarchy.
“We’re talking about a man who is extremely serious about his rugby,” McCall said this week. “I’d describe him as a quietly ambitious player who is prepared to do whatever it takes to make the best of himself. The more people in England see of Kieran, the more they’ll be prepared to forgive Stuart for picking him.” Sanderson, meanwhile, was short, sharp and to the point: “He’s a joy to work with: obsessed with detail, technically brilliant and a genuinely athletic specimen.” Crikey.
Longbottom, approaching his prime as a prop at 28, moved to England during the summer from Western Force, the Perth-based Super 15 side. “I was very happy at the Force and I wasn’t looking seriously for anything else,” he says after training ahead of Saturday’s league meeting with Gloucester. “But at the same time, I didn’t feel I was in the running for the Wallabies, so when an offer from Saracens landed on the table, I thought: ‘Why not grab it? Why not challenge yourself?’ I’d heard quite a bit about the club and I’d thought a lot about playing in Europe at some point in my career. I didn’t feel I was turning my back on anything and if I’d heard something from the Wallabies, I might have made a different decision. But I could have broken a leg waiting for their call, and where would that have left me? I believe that when a door opens, you walk through it.”
He joined Saracens to play for Saracens, not to play for England, but if things fall into place on the international front, he would not dream of “passing it up”, as he puts it. “I’d look on it as an honour,” he says, “just as I’d have seen it as an honour to represent Australia. I have great respect for the shirt, wherever I’m playing. I considered it an honour when I first played for my school side back in Rockingham, it was the same when I made it into the Force team and it’s the same again here at Saracens.
“It wasn’t until quite recently that I realised I had an English qualification through my grandmother on my mum’s side. She died when I was five or six so I can’t say I really knew her, but she’s still giving me good things, it seems.”
Western Australia, his home state, has never been one of the union hotbeds of the Wallaby nation. “It was all Aussie Rules there when I was growing up,” Longbottom recalls. “When they first decided to put a rugby side together at school – I was in Year Eight at the time – we barely had enough kids to make up a team. We’d have one player on the bench, if we were lucky. It wasn’t like growing up in Sydney or Brisbane, where the game mattered. But the interest has built up in recent years, we’re beginning to see more local players picking up professional contracts and last season was the best in the Force’s history. We were a victory away from making the Super 15 semi-finals. That would have been a wonderful way to leave town.”
A career front-rower – “I was the tubby kid at school,” he explains – Longbottom identifies the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker and current Force coach Michael Foley as a key influence, together with three props who played alongside him in Perth: the aforementioned Dunning, the New Zealand age-group cap Tim Fairbrother and the aggressive Salesi Ma’afu, whom he fought to a standstill in the contest for the Super 15 starting position. As Fairbrother spent time at Harlequins and Ma’afu now plays for Northampton, the scrummager’s road from Perth to Premiership is becoming well signposted.
Yet Longbottom had his moments of discomfort after deciding to leave Australia. “Let’s put it this way: it was a mistake to read some of the comment sections beneath the internet news items, because I found a fair bit coming my way,” he says, a pained expression on his face. “I understand it’s frustrating for Australian rugby when people leave, but it was frustrating for me too. What I faced back home was a whole lot of uncertainty, and I had to set that against the complete certainty of a really good gig at a really good club here in England.”
McCall moved for Longbottom because he was losing the unusually substantial Matt Stevens, an experienced England international and two-time Lions tourist, to Super 15 rugby in South Africa. Initially, it seemed the newcomer would have his hands full with another outsized member of the tight-head fraternity – James Johnston, the 21 stone Samoan forward lured away from Harlequins at considerable expense in the summer of last year – but he has upset the selectorial apple cart with a series of highly accomplished early-season performances.
“I’m one of the smaller props here,” he says, “but then, the last set of changes to the set-piece engagement rules put more of an emphasis on technical scrummaging and worked in my favour. But the most important thing for a prop is humility. We all have our ideas of perfection, but the reality of it is that perfection isn’t an option. The fascinating thing about playing in my position is that we all have our individual approach to the job. If you’re humble enough to accept that nobody knows it all, and that you can learn something from everyone, you have a good chance of being better next week than you were last week.”
Lancaster and his sidekicks may feel that they have not seen quite enough of Longbottom to fast-track him into their squad for next month’s international series against the cream of the southern hemisphere, including the Wallabies. But they are watching him closely and are certain to take full account of his contribution on Saturday, together with his performance against an expensively constructed Clermont Auvergne pack in next weekend’s opening European Champions Cup fixture.
An Aussie in the England front row? If it happens, the irony will not be lost on the man from WA. “Back home, I guess we do feel that some countries, especially England, see our scrum as a weakness and go out there to have a crack at us in that area. But we’ve been working on it.”
What price the word “we” being replaced by the word “they” at some point in the near future?