Graham Rowntree, the England scrum coach, did not take it personally, but it was a slightly uncomfortable moment all the same. Having spent the preceding few minutes discussing the art and science of set-piece engagement with a dozen or so members of the fourth estate, he suddenly found himself in a one-on-one conversation with... Graham Rowntree. "It seems they've had a better offer," muttered the old Leicester hard-head to himself, and indeed they had.
The better offer was Mathew Tait, back in the red-rose side in his optimum position of outside centre for the first time since the 2007 World Cup final, which he very nearly turned on its head with a broken-field run that went down in the annals as the best try never scored. Tait even had the brass neck to upstage his old Newcastle club-mate and midfield partner Jonny Wilkinson, who, for the first time in recorded rugby history, managed to enter a room without anyone noticing. Did this mean he'd finally made it? "Can't comment," Tait replied, with one of those little-boy-lost smiles of his.
He may, however, have a view on the subject if he succeeds in running Wales ragged at Twickenham this weekend, for the ghosts of 2005 might then be fully exorcised. "Actually, I look back on that 2005 game with fondness," he said after being asked, not for the first time (nor, indeed, the 101st) to reflect on his international debut against the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium. "It was one of the experiences that helped me develop as a player. It showed me what rugby was about at international level. I've made quite a journey since – there have been so many highs and lows, ins and outs – but I'm a better player now than I was then. I read the game, both in attack and defence, in ways I couldn't read it when I was in my teens."
This latest tussle with the Red Dragonhood – Stephen Jones, Jamie Roberts, James Hook and the rest of them – happens to fall on his 24th birthday. Tait may still come across as the fresh-faced choirboy type, but in rugby terms, he is older than his years. "I feel as though I've had my mid-life crisis already," he said with a grin, looking back on the barren spell that followed his early substitution during the '05 fixture and his subsequent dropping from the squad – a decision Andy Robinson, then the England coach, quickly came to regret.
"It's been frustrating, not kicking on from that performance in the World Cup final," he continued. "But I don't think there has ever been a point where I didn't feel I'd get back. I've had to refocus at certain times, but now I've had a run of games in one position – the position in which I've always been most comfortable, as opposed to full-back or wing – I feel really good about my prospects. I'm massively excited about this game against Wales."
England might have been more exciting, if not massively so, had they picked him last autumn. Their matches against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand yielded the grand total of one try – a tally that left Twickenham Man, who has learned to put up with almost anything in recent seasons, in a state of deepest depression. Indeed, Tait received something approaching an ovation when he took the field against the All Blacks five minutes from the end of normal time. It was not that the faithful expected him to win the game for them, more an expression of relief at seeing someone capable of producing something out of the ordinary.
"Not being involved for more than a few minutes in the autumn was pretty disappointing," admitted Tait, "but Dan Hipkiss had been playing really well for Leicester and he deserved his chance. I'm not so daft as to disrespect the efforts of others." With the boot now attached to the other foot, Hipkiss would no doubt say something similar. But he must know, along with the whole of the rugby public, that his rival has a range of gifts beyond that of any English outside centre since Jeremy Guscott. If things go well for Tait this weekend, a star will be born. Or rather, reborn.Reuse content