It is just a little hard to imagine Andrew Sheridan – man-mountain cornerstone of forward packs ever since some bright spark told him to stop loafing around in the second row and mix it with the real men at the sharp end – being short in the biceps department, but recent "revision" surgery, euphemistic jargon for the correction of an operation that went wrong, has indeed left him dimensionally challenged.
"I'm still as flexible as ever," he insisted after being named in England's starting line-up for this afternoon's deeply significant meeting with Ireland at Lansdowne Road, albeit with an accompanying smile indicating that the man who has always been least convinced of Sheridan's physical pliability is Sheridan himself. "I was playing in some discomfort: the anchors in my shoulder from the previous surgery had come out. It had to be sorted, so I resigned myself to another operation and cracking on with the rehab. It gets a bit monotonous, but this is a job I'm paid to do. It's a player's responsibility to work his way back as quickly as he can."
In Sheridan's case, the recovery process has not been completed at anything close to the speed of light: he has not played for England since the Six Nations victory over France at the end of February, or for anyone since mid-April. As a result, he was far from confident of challenging for a place in Martin Johnson's party for the World Cup. "I certainly wasn't counting my chickens in June, when the 45-man training squad was announced," he admitted.
And now? How confident is he of his readiness to handle Mike Ross, the substantial Irish tight-head prop dismissed by some England players as a "pastry chef" who enjoyed a very loud last laugh by playing the game of his life against his mockers on Grand Slam day in March? Come to that, is he really in the right place to take on the heavy-scrummaging Argentines when the important business begins in Dunedin next month, not to mention the rock-hard Georgian front-rowers?
"In terms of aerobic fitness," he replied, "I'm pretty good, and I believe I'm scrummaging as strongly as I ever did. Match fitness? That's a different thing. You don't find out about match fitness until you play a match, preferably a tough one. I think this game with Ireland will give me a good idea of where I am because both teams are regarding it as a very important fixture. I know I'm pretty rusty as far as playing time is concerned so it's essential to get a good, physical contest behind me."
Sheridan's early exit from the Six Nations opened the door for the then uncapped London Irish loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero, and the newcomer's early performances against Italy and France were highly encouraging – not least because both European mainlanders fancied their chances in the darkened recesses. Then there was a startling return to form and fortune by Matt Stevens, whose dabblings with so-called "social" chemicals cost him two of the prime years of his sporting life. Stevens had played most of his big-time rugby as a tight-head specialist, but Saracens, already blessed with one of those in the form of the Italian forward Carlos Nieto, played him on the other side of the front row and ended up winning a first Premiership title. From Sheridan's perspective, the Test prop population was booming just at the wrong time.
Yet such is the regard in which he is held by Johnson, he was picked for the World Cup squad without proving his fitness on the field of play. "Of course Andrew needs game time; ideally, we would have liked to see him against Wales in Cardiff in the second warm-up match," said the manager. "But we felt he had enough credit in the bank to justify his selection. Besides, he has a hell of a lot of experience when it comes to working his way back from injury."
A successful afternoon against the fast improving Ross will surely see Sheridan square up to the Pumas in a fortnight's time – and maybe the Georgians a week later. Does he know much about the men from the Caucasus? "No, not at the moment," he conceded. "Do you?" Good question, Andrew. Thanks for that.Reuse content