Tait won't sidestep blame so give him a break, Johnno

Sale's flair player still searches for starting role – and he will lose sleep over it
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The Independent Online

If England had busted a hundred holes in Ireland during their Six Nations meeting at Croke Park eight days ago, the scoring pass which never was from Mathew Tait might have been easily forgotten. They didn't, and instead it gave Tait insomnia. "It kept me awake for the first three nights, thinking about it," said the 23-year-old. "It was pleasing to make that break. But, yeah, I should have passed it."

Tait's diagonal dash came to a halt when, with Riki Flutey and Mark Cueto outside him, and a set move off a line-out about to pay off to perfection, the ball and the ball-carrier were enveloped in a tackle by Rob Kearney. It was a punch to the solar plexus for those pundits who would advocate Tait's inclusion from the start for England, rather than from the bench, whence he has appeared in seven of his eight Tests since the 2007 World Cup. As a second-half replacement for the injured wing Paul Sackey in the 14-13 defeat in Dublin, he was given a short piece of rope, and hanged himself with it.

"As long as I learn from it, and make the right decision when I'm presented with an opportunity like that again, that's all I can do," Tait said. If Dublin weakened the case for Tait's attack, just when England's could do with a boost, his defence is sounder than many might imagine.

At the start of this season Sale had Tait and Charlie Hodgson defending at outside-centre and full-back respectively, and attacking at 15 and 10. "We went four or five games without conceding a try," said Tait. "Then I tore a hamstring just before England's autumn series, and ended up getting sciatica down my back, which took longer to heal than I'd hoped."

He needed an epidural and he still does weekly yoga classes. With a bunch of Lycra-clad ladies? "There has been the occasional bloke popping his head in," said Tait, who joined Sale from Newcastle last summer. Other spare-time activities – if the Manchester weather ever allows – include digging in his spring flowers and adding to his hours airborne in a Cessna 152 as he trains for a private pilot's licence.

Whether Sackey takes wing again for England against France at Twickenham on Sunday depends on how his injured calf muscle heals; Tait will start in his "favourite position" of outside-centre when his past and present clubs meet at Edgeley Park this afternoon as the Guinness Premiership's most in-form sides.

It was Tait's break which was an attacking highlight of the 2007 World Cup final. He began England's last five matches of that competition at outside-centre – with Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half – in a team who conceded a total of four tries against Tonga, Samoa, Australia, France and South Africa. Again it gives the lie to the idea of Tait as all guile and no substance, although he switched positions in those games.

Now, with Wilkinson injured, Mike Tindall is bringing his defensive organisation to bear at centre and Tait is back to multi-tasking. I asked Martin Johnson whether that would be the lot of the "flair player" – admittedly as nebulous a description as "good defence" – in the England manager's thinking? "In terms of a 'flair player', a guy who can beat someone one on one, I presume you mean," Johnson said, "Riki Flutey in the Wales game created a try by beating three guys with his sidestep. We've got plenty of guys who can do that.

"Defences are very tough, you know. [The Ireland match] was a hugely physical, competitive, defensive game where if you got it wrong, you got isolated, you got turned over."

Perhaps the fear of the turnover is a clue to England's ignominious tally of 10 yellow cards in four matches. "The guys who are in there for England at the minute are there on merit and Johnno is going with the team he feels is the best to take us forward," said Tait. "Guys like myself, James Simpson-Daniel, Shane [Geraghty], Danny [Cipriani], when we get the chance we have to take it with both hands." And perhaps not tuck the ball under one arm when an Ireland full-back is approaching? "It's frustrating I haven't managed to nail the centre position down with England," he said.

Jason Robinson, for one, is in no doubt as to Tait's attacking value. "In 17 years of professional rugby not many players got round me, but Mathew did it twice, " said Sale's newly announced head coach. "Not many catch him on the outside arc, me included. One of my great challenges is to get the very best out of him." And in that, though in their different ways, club and country are united.

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