Lee Dickson's experiences in an England shirt over the last seven weeks have confirmed him in his long-held suspicion that experience is not all it's cracked up to be. "All the time, you hear people talking about the importance of having dozens of caps, as if you can't make an impact in the international game unless you've been doing it for years," says the Northampton scrum-half. "I always believed I could play Test rugby, that I could handle the magnitude of it, even when people were smacking me down and rejecting me. How is my self-belief, now I've had a taste? Massive. How was it before I had a taste? Massive."
Twelve months ago, the 26-year-old son of a high-ranking Royal Signals officer was starting to believe in something other than himself: namely, the existence of Sod's Law. He was playing the best, most energetically relentless club rugby of his life – be it in the Premiership or the Heineken Cup, he was the union code's physical embodiment of the Noel Coward dictum that "work is much more fun than fun" – but the steep pathway to England recognition seemed impassable. Martin Johnson, the national manager, was interested only in running half-backs like Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Joe Simpson, largely because there was no running going on anywhere else in his team, and on his own admission, Dickson was not a runner. A tireless pusher, prodder, badgerer and distributor... yes, he was all of those things. Unfortunately for him, they were the things Johnson felt he did not need.
"What can I do about it? Nothing, except the obvious: keep playing well and hope someone gives me a call," he said at the time, in an interview with this newspaper. Happily, both things happened. Dickson kept his side of the bargain by continuing to drive Northampton onwards and upwards in a style based on the principles of perpetual motion, and finally, he received the call of his dream. Not from Johnson, but from Stuart Lancaster, with whom he had worked at second-string Saxons level. Unsurprisingly, he considers himself to be in Lancaster's debt.
"Stuart is one of the people who never rejected me," he says. "There have been a few: Martin Pepper, who coached me when I was a pupil at Barnard Castle School; John Fletcher at Newcastle; Jim Mallinder at Northampton. But it wasn't always like that – I haven't always been surrounded by people who were prepared to show faith in me. In my late teens, when I was trying to make my way in age-group representative rugby, I was often told I wasn't good enough – that I couldn't do this or wasn't able to do that. Rejection has been a huge driver for me, but personal drive is not always enough. Sometimes, you need a really supportive coach to help you take a step forward. Over the last few weeks, Stuart has done that. He's been brilliant."
All of which begs the obvious question: who, in his opinion, should be the new full-time England coach? Players with both eyes on security of international tenure have been known to avoid such sensitive queries, but Dickson does not hesitate for a second in answering, not only for himself but for everyone else. "I'd like to give an opinion, definitely," he responds. "I think I speak for all of us when I say I hope Stuart gets the job. The whole set-up has been outstanding – Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell have been incredibly positive and, together with Stuart, they've proved their value. Having worked with Stuart previously, I knew what he was about and had every confidence that he'd do a good job. Now, it's up to us to do a job for him and his colleagues by beating Ireland. We all know that another victory this weekend will strengthen his case."
This time last year, Dickson was self-containment made flesh. "I base myself on myself," he replied when asked if there was a scrum-half role model at the heart of his sporting development. Now, he acknowledges the influence of one England No 9 in particular: Matt Dawson, the World Cup-winner and Test Lion who spent years coaxing and cajoling the Northampton forwards in much the same way as Dickson does now.
"I admired Matt's rugby when he was playing and he has been good enough to discuss a few things with me and give me some pointers since the start of the Six Nations," Dickson says. "I think he sees certain similarities between the way he played and the way I'm trying to play, and when I look at the career he had, I don't see how I can go too far wrong by following his advice."
The similarities he speaks of are obvious. Dawson was a hugely capable all-round games player, while Dickson was a top-class squash player and a good enough footballer to spend time in camp with the Manchester City youth set-up. Dawson's mastery of the tap penalty routine was of incalculable benefit to England over the years; Dickson pulls the same trick at least once a game. And if Dawson was not as quick across the ground as Austin Healey or as technically accomplished as his great rival Kyran Bracken, he held the trump card in terms of rugby's intangibles: the three Bs of brashness, bolshiness and bloody-mindedness. "He was," says Dickson, "a dog. I like to think of myself in the same way. As a scrum-half, it's good to be very loud, a little obnoxious and have some real bite about you as a competitor."
There is nothing of the loner about England's new half-back, who successfully presented his case for a place in the starting team with an eye-catching contribution off the bench against Italy in Rome and made the most of his opportunity by taking the fight to Wales at Twickenham a fortnight later. Rather, he is at his happiest in the kind of positive, mutually supportive environment created by Lancaster. The seeds of this were sown at school. He suffered with dyslexia in his early teens – Chris Robshaw, the current red-rose captain, had similar issues at a similar age – but responded so well to the pastoral assistance offered by Barnard Castle that he romped through his exams.
"One of the things that strikes me most about this England squad is the complete absence of the 'our club, your club' thing," he says. "At Northampton, we have an intense rivalry with Leicester, but it's not mentioned when we're here." Does that mean he won't mind if his clubmates finish second to the Tigers in tomorrow's Anglo-Welsh Cup final at the Sixways stadium in Worcester? "Ah, that's different," he replies. "Actually, we'll all be there: the Northampton lot, the Leicester lot. We're travelling in different cars, but we're bound to be sitting next to each other for the game. I imagine there'll be some words exchanged then, but hey... the Six Nations will be over, won't it?"
What will not be over, if Dickson has anything to do with it, is his international career. He fully intends to be the No 1 choice when England visit South Africa for the most demanding of three-Test series in the summer. More than that, he fancies himself as a red-rose contender for years to come. "I've waited a long time to get my hands on this shirt," he says, "so I'm not thinking of letting it go soon. Yes, I've been around for a while, but I'm not exactly old."
Indeed not. He turns 27 at the end of this month, but while Youngs, his most obvious immediate rival for the position, is only 22, he has the best part of three years on another of the scrum-halves in the current England training squad. This happens to be his brother Karl, whose excellent recent showings for Harlequins have pushed him up the pecking order.
"It's nice to see Karl making it happen for himself – he's worked hard and he deserves it," says Dickson Minor. "He is, however, getting on a bit. He'll be 30 this year. The big three-oh. Make sure you put that in the paper. It'll wind him up." Truly, he is more like Dawson than he knows, and he may just get on the nerves of a few Irishmen this evening.Reuse content