Lessons at Leicester offer lost centre a route back to England
Anthony Allen was capped aged 20 only to be cast aside. Now, he tells Chris Hewett, he is back and ready to solve the No 12 issue
Saturday 23 October 2010
The Tuesday afternoon bloodbath at Oval Park, the heavily fortified Leicester training ground on the edge of town, has a time honoured place in Tigers' lore.
Down the years, many a bright young thing has emerged looking like a model for a Picasso portrait – one eye above the other, nose on the side of the face, a shard of tooth where his ear should be – and there is little reason to believe the current sessions are less ferocious than those of a decade ago. After all, Richard Cockerill is the man in charge, and the front-row street fighter of old has never been mistaken for a horizontal pacifist.
Yet Anthony Allen looks as cherubically pristine now as he did when he materialised from an unknown corner of Nowheresville to win the first of his two England caps four years ago. How does he do it? "I think the training here must have changed in recent seasons," he says. "We still have the Tuesday session, but people don't go silly." Interesting. Can it be that Cockerill is losing his touch? Or is Allen tougher than he appears?
As it was Cockerill who brought him to the club from Gloucester, he is best placed to explain what it is Allen brings to the champions' mix. "We were interested in two candidates for the inside-centre role: one was Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (the Samoan Test midfielder); the other was Anthony, who spoke so well when I met him and gave me such a clear idea of why he wanted to come to us that I immediately felt he had something important to offer," recalls the director of rugby. "He'd been capped early – maybe too early – but hadn't really kicked on. Yet he had responded positively to the experience. A lot of players his age might have gone the other way. I've been very impressed with him. He tackles well, carries well and never seems fazed. He's the sort of player who does 20 good things during a game without being noticed by 99 per cent of the people watching."
All of which should be of interest to the England selectors, for if Allen is the lost centre of red-rose rugby, the time is ripe for his rediscovery. The white No 12 shirt has not been adequately filled since Will Greenwood, a World Cup winner seven years ago and very much the intellectual force behind Clive Woodward's outstanding side, made his last international start, against France in the 2004 Six Nations Championship.
No fewer than 14 individuals have attempted to fill the void, from Henry Paul (too flaky) and Jamie Noon (too limited) to Andy Farrell (too slow) and Ayoola Erinle (too everything). Mike Catt had half a dozen shots at it without ever quite convincing anyone he was there for the duration; the injury-prone Stuart Abbott tried twice but kept breaking down; Mike Tindall moved inside from outside centre before moving straight back again; Shane Geraghty was given a chance, and then given the shove. Toby Flood might be the answer, but England need him at stand-off. Olly Barkley? England feel they don't need him at all.
Allen appeared, briefly, in the very middle of this roll call of the damned. Not long out of full-time education at Millfield School, he had caught the eye with some button-bright performances for Gloucester in the early weeks of the 2006-07 season and suddenly found himself training with the England squad – or rather, the remnants of an England squad torn asunder by injuries to more than two dozen players – at Loughborough University. The All Blacks loomed on the horizon and Andy Robinson's position as head coach was looking less secure by the day. Allen had just turned 20 and, on his own admission, found things a little confusing on the elbow-posterior front.
"I remember the coaches worrying there was no one to run at outside-half in one of the sessions, and Brian Ashton, who knew me from the national academy, coming over and saying: 'I've seen you play 10. Have a go.' It was great for my confidence. The next thing I knew, Andy Robinson was taking me to one side and saying: 'We're going to pick you at 12.' And I'm going: 'Right, thanks,' while thinking, 'Oh shit'. I'd played for England at age-group level, but this was an entirely different environment. It was mind-blowing, if I'm honest.
"It's in the record [books] that I threw an interception pass that cost us a try, and of course, I was out of the reckoning after the defeat by Argentina the following week. But I look back on it with great fondness. It's your dream, isn't it? I can't pretend I wasn't surprised at finding myself playing against New Zealand that day, but I was hardly going to say to Andy: 'No, I don't want to do this.' I just wish I could have had the chance now, rather than then. I'm fitter and stronger these days, and the tools I have in my toolbox are much more suited to the demands of international rugby."
Playing opposite him on debut day at Twickenham was Aaron Mauger. "We swapped shirts, and that black jersey is still hanging on my wall," says Allen. When he arrived at Leicester, the self-same Mauger was the man barring his way to the first team. "It's funny how things turn out. I thought at the time that it would be really difficult to get past him – he was one of the big All Black names, after all – but he started having his injury problems and I was given an early run in the side. That helped. It also helps playing outside Toby Flood and developing a relationship with someone who asks so many questions of opposition defences and gives me so much to feed off. At Gloucester, I was just a line runner, pure and simple. Now, working with Toby, there's a lot more to my game."
And then there is Matt O'Connor, the head coach at Welford Road. "He's been brilliant with me," Allen acknowledges. "He screams and shouts a bit, but I'm more comfortable doing more things as a result of him being on my case. He wants me to take the next step and get back into the England reckoning almost as much as I want to do it. He keeps on telling me that it shouldn't just be Ben Youngs and Toby providing the Leicester link for England, but Youngs, Flood and Allen. 'Be positive,' he says. 'Push yourself forward'."
He does not seem the pushy sort. Rather like Mathew Tait, another centre given an early taste of international rugby and then dropped like a hot potato, he has about him an air of politeness that seems ill-suited to a sport that values courtesy and cultivation a little less each year. But Allen has a harder shell than the ill-used and ill-starred Tait, whose frustrations at international level stem partly from his own lack of self-confidence. Nobody thrives in the hothouse atmosphere generated by the Cockerills and O'Connors of this world without standing up to be counted.
There is a rugged quality to Allen's play these days that was rarely evident early in his career. Those who prefer their inside centres to bring a big kicking game to the table tend to dismiss his chances of winning a third cap, but it is not an issue that costs him much in the way of sleep – "I'm prepared to kick when necessary, but I think a lot of people kick too much," – and besides, a certain Mr Greenwood barely put boot to ball from one season to the next.
"Do I want to play for England again? Of course," he says. "But I can wait. It's a matter of bashing out the games for Leicester, working hard on expanding my range and performing. If you do that for a decent amount of time and you're still being ignored, you can legitimately ask the question. But not before then. It's all about the club as far as I'm concerned. I was approached by a season-ticket holder at a dinner quite recently and he said: 'When you first arrived, I didn't know why we'd signed you. Now, I can see it.' That was good to hear. It means I'm doing something right."
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