Special Care: Red Rose rivals behind the scrum

After years of shortage, England have an embarrassment of riches in the scrum-half department – with Harlequins' No 9 the most exciting. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online

English rugby has been subject to all manner of laws since Martin Johnson wrapped his shovel-like hands around the Webb Ellis Trophy on that night of nights in Sydney almost five years ago. Sod's Law has been much in evidence, as has the law of diminishing returns, along with what might be called the Woodward-Andrew law, which dictates that blame should always be pinned on the other bloke, preferably through the columns of a pet national newspaper.

Suddenly, we have the London bus law, as it pertains to scrum-halves. This time last year, England were in France, attempting to defend their world title with a trio of No 9s cobbled together from the back end of beyond. Each had his virtues – Shaun Perry was strong, Peter Richards quick, Andy Gomarsall experienced – but none, if truth be told, stacked up against Matthew Dawson or Kyran Bracken, the two men who had done the necessary in 2003. Twelve months on, rugby's version of the terrier population has virtually trebled in size. You wait for ages, and then...

The 2007 vintage are still around, although Perry has pranged his shoulder and does not expect to play until December. Indeed, Richards is still in England's 32-man elite squad. But the focus has shifted to four younger individuals – Danny Care, Harry Ellis, Ben Foden and the widely admired 20-year-old Wasps player Joe Simpson – with two of last season's Six Nations squad, Richard Wigglesworth and Paul Hodgson, in grim pursuit.

There has been a good deal of talk about Simpson in recent weeks, and while he is not likely to trouble the thoughts of Johnson and the rest of the England hierarchy just yet – behind Eoin Reddan and Mark Robinson in the Wasps pecking order, he will spend a good deal of time playing Second Division rugby for London Welsh – it will be surprising if he is not given a taste of Premiership activity at some point during the campaign. And as Care showed at Harlequins last term, the best scrum-halves have long been masters of taking a mile every time they are offered an inch.

Care is the man in possession, having emerged from England's desperate summer tour of New Zealand with credit in the bank – no mean feat, given the run on the reputations of 95 per cent of the party. That he did so while labouring under the dead weight of the "Auckland Four" farrago, set in motion when New Zealand detectives went public with vague allegations of sexual misconduct against a group of tourists, made the achievement all the more remarkable.

"I knew I'd done nothing wrong, and I was able to use that knowledge to block it all out," recalled the 21-year-old Yorkshireman, who was subsequently declared entirely innocent by Judge Jeff Blackett, the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary officer, who staged his own investigation into the matter and aimed some sharp criticism at the Auckland police and their antics. "I was still relieved when the Blackett report was published, though. I wanted the allegations to be shown up for what they were – a pack of lies – because you don't feel great seeing your name in the paper under those circumstances. Am I more wary now? Yes, but it hasn't dampened my enthusiasm at all. I'd love to tour with England again. The sooner the better."

No one seriously doubts that he will get his wish, especially now that rugby's legislators have embraced the idea of giving scrum-halves more time and space in which to operate. Care is blessed with the kind of pace that might have been designed specifically to interfere with the sleep patterns of loose forwards. Now there is a no man's land of approximately 15 metres at every scrum, it will be surprising if the common or garden Premiership flanker ever sleeps again.

Yet with Ellis, that aggressive little so-and-so from Leicester, operating at full fitness after the wretched injury problems that cost him his place at the last World Cup and Foden zeroing in on the scrum-half spot at Northampton after spending two frustrating seasons dabbling around with the full-back position at Sale, there is no room for slippage. Care and Ellis, the two obvious contenders for the No 9 shirt in this autumn's international series, will not meet at Premiership level this side of Christmas, but Foden knows he could well have a crack at both of them in the first half of the campaign and is of a mind to make it count.

"It will be competitive, that's for sure," Care admitted. "We all know what Harry offers when he's fit and in form, and with Ben moving clubs to give himself a chance at scrum-half, the contest is bound to be intense. From my point of view, it's about securing my first-team place at Harlequins and taking it from there. Six months ago, I was third choice at Quins and not terribly happy about. If I'm not playing I tend to ask why, and I had those discussions with Dean Richards [the director of rugby at the Stoop]. He told me to be patient – that I was getting there, but should bide my time. He was right. Looking back, I think I was pretty naïve, thinking I'd march straight into the first team. But I admit that there were occasions when I wondered whether Quins was the place for me."

He is not wondering now, not after the last "mad six months" that have seen him establish himself at Premiership level and give the All Blacks a thing or two to think about on his Test appearances in Auckland and Christchurch. "I've been lucky with the back-row forwards I've been playing alongside," he conceded. "At Quins, we're strong in that department: we'll have Chris Robshaw, Will Skinner, Tom Guest and Nick Easter fighting for starting places this season. With England, it was the back-rowers – James Haskell, Tom Rees, Luke Narraway – who caught the eye against the New Zealanders. They're young, quick, strong, dynamic players and from a scrum-half's point of view, they make a world of difference. I've always been the sort to try things on the field. It's the way I am. But you can't do it alone, not in top-level rugby. You need the right people doing the right things around you."

All things considered, England find themselves better equipped at scrum-half than at any point since the mid-1990s, when Dawson, Bracken, Gomarsall and Austin Healey were clawing each other to bits in pursuit of red rose preferment. It is a far cry from the late spring of 2007, when Ellis found himself in orthopaedic trauma and Brian Ashton, a few months into his extraordinary tenure as national coach, found himself without a half-back to call his own.

Of course, too many can be as damaging as too few; indeed, successive England coaches have struggled to see the wood for the trees at important moments in recent seasons. But Johnson, the new boss, can count himself fortunate. He has any number of team-building issues on his mind: full-back, inside centre and hooker being merely the most pressing of them. Scrum-half is not an issue, though. Not unless Simpson muddies the waters by making a splash before the end of the season.

Care Bear chronicle: Danny Care details

Date of birth: 2 January 1987.

Born: Leeds, Yorkshire.

Height: 5ft 9in.

Weight: 12st 2lb.

Attended Prince Henry's Grammar School, Otley.

Position: Scrum-half/fly-half.

Current club: Harlequins.

Has represented England at Under-16 and Under-18 levels, and was part of the England Under-19 sevens squad.

Nickname: Care Bear.

Favourite band: Westlife.

Hobbies: Beating David Strettle at pool and gaming on a Playstation; playing football and going to the cinema.

Ideal job other than rugby: Fireman.

Favourite food: Fish and chips.

Would like to have dinner with: Alan Partridge.

Miscellaneous: Was released from the Sheffield Wednesday academy for being "too small".

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