Why England's best player isn't in team...

Crazy RFU/clubs agreement keeps brilliant Bath back on the sidelines but there is still hope that Johnson can pull a fast one
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The Independent Online

Nick Abendanon is not a small-print kind of guy. With a Heineken Cup tie today in Toulouse to look forward to, the last thing the bright, bold, brash Bath full-back should be talking about is the minutiae of the Rugby Football Union's eight-year agreement with the clubs of the Guinness Premiership. But that does not stop him giving a straight answer to the straightforward question.

"It is hard, because there's the background I personally don't know about, which is all the disputes with the club and country stuff," said Abendanon. "But my feeling is that the players who are playing the best in the Premiership should be the ones who are going to be playing for England in the internationals coming up. At the moment, if someone's not playing well they can't kick him out unless he's injured and, to me, it doesn't work. It's hard, especially if you are one of the players like myself who feels they're justified to have the chance to have a go. It's pretty gutting but there's nothing I can do."

And doing nothing is at odds with every fibre of Abendanon's being. Five matches into the Premiership season he has been described by Will Greenwood, that eminent England centre of recent vintage, as the country's outstanding player. So although the powers that be dismiss the issue as media tittle-tattle, it is fair to assume the man or woman in the street is both intrigued and mystified as to why a player as bang in form as Abendanon cannot be selected for next month's Tests at Twickenham. One of the many terms of the RFU/clubs agreement (it is 140 pages long) is that only the 32 players named in Martin Johnson's senior squad on 1 July are eligible, and Abendanon was not one of them.

"I'm sure Martin Johnson has got a few tricks up his sleeve," Abendanon said, in reference to the selection criterion which allows for a player to be replaced in the squad if he has been appearing for his club in a position other than the one nominated by England. This is where the black-and-white small print turns into a grey area, as no one is willing to publish a list of the players and their nominated positions, and no one will confirm how many matches out of position is the trigger.

It is therefore only received wisdom that Josh Lewsey – having played for Wasps on the wing of late – might be vulnerable to demotion in favourof Abendanon or Harlequins' Mike Brown, who are next in line in the second-tier Saxons squad. Abendanon could play a blinder against the three-times European champions today in front of a 30,000 crowd at Toulouse's football stadium, and it would not make a blind bit of difference.

Abendanon's attacking prowess, recognised by a couple of England caps to date, has been augmented by improved defence after he spent the summer "going back to the basics" of his tackling with Brad Davis, Bath's defence coach. The 22-year-old runs a hand through his newly undyed hair (it's the "winter cut", he explains) and concentrates on the upside of the argument. "I don't watch a hell of a lot of rugby, but Toulouse are one side I would watch simply for their style of play and how enthusiastic they are down there: the drums going and all that. We're going to have to block it out and play our game."

Abendanon can attack and counter-attack at great pace, and he is thriving behind a highly mobile Bath pack. Then again, he has always travelled in style. When his Dutch-descended parents emigrated from South Africa – Nick was a babe in arms, his brotherSimon was three and their sister Caroline had yet to arrive – they took the QE II from Cape Town to Rio and flew Concorde from New York to London. Having attended Cheltenham College and won an Under-21 Grand Slam with England, Abendanon was capped in Pretoria, funnily enough, in June 2007. He subsequently wound up with a World Cup runners-up medal after he was called out as cover for the final week of the tournament in France.

"You shouldn't say that a player's defence and attack equal each other out, that's not how it should work," said Abendanon. "But I missed a tackle on Chabal [France's flanker Sébastien in a World Cup warm-up match] and as soon as one person picked up on that, they're looking to see if I miss another one. It's hard to get yourself out of a situation like that. The only way to do it is prove you can tackle."

Lesley Vainikolo, the gargantuan Gloucester wing, got the message at the Rec last month. "I put a couple of good hits in on him," said Abendanon. "You know, it's something that's got to be done if you're going to play at full-back. And I know I can do it. I was falling off tackles instead of chasing my feet; now I'm driving through instead of hitting them and stopping. So far it's worked well."

Johnson and Brian Smith, the England attack coach, have let Abendanon know they want him to make fewer unforced errors. "The thing that gives me the greatest kick," said Abendanon, who to raise awareness of testicular cancer posed naked for Cosmopolitan with only a rugby ball to cover his tackle, "is catching the ball at the back and finding your way through a line of defence that seems impenetrable.

"I love this new rule of quick throw-ins, it gives me more space to go on the outside. Burning people on the outside, you don't get much better than that. If there's something I think I can bring to English rugby it would be my attacking sense of space." For the moment, the rest is out of his hands.