Jamie Noon: 'If ever there was a moment to be the best we can, this is it'

The dependable Jamie Noon has had to make a name for himself in England's much-maligned midfield. As he prepares for rugby's supreme test against the All Blacks Chris Hewett hears what makes him tick
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The Independent Online

Anthony Allen, the new England centre, ventures to suggest that, as he knows precious little about the All Blacks with whom he is scheduled to mix it in front of a record crowd at Twickenham tomorrow, they in turn must know even less about him.

He has a point. While Allen has played far too effectively for Gloucester over the last year or so to be counted among the nobodies of the union game, it would be an exaggeration of considerable proportions to describe him as a household name, even in his own household. Ask Jamie Noon of Newcastle, his midfield partner. He knows nothing about him either.

"I've never played alongside Anthony, and I haven't played against him," Noon said this week. "We haven't met Gloucester so far this season, and while he was involved in the game at Kingsholm last autumn [the fixture that served as Allen's introduction to Premiership rugby] I was away on international duty. Basically, our relationship goes no further than the training field, so you could say we have some work to do.

"Like all partnerships in this sport, the key is communication. I'd like to think we already have a degree of understanding as a result of the time we've spent together, but it will be an ongoing process."

By and large, any team harbouring ambitions - or even fantasies - of beating a side as good as the All Blacks need to bring a full set of finished articles to the party, not sundry works in progress. As Noon will spend tomorrow afternoon inhabiting the space between two debutants, the Wasps wing Paul Sackey being the other one, he may well carry the heaviest burden of any member of the home side. One positional slip could leave Allen at the mercy of a rapacious New Zealand midfield; one ill-timed pass could see Sackey receiving the ball at the precise moment he receives Joe Rokocoko, which would be hideous. If the new boys are to get through this in one piece and not require the services of a psychiatrist before they play again, Noon will have to perform at somewhere near the optimum.

"There will, I suppose, be a degree of expectation on me to help out as much as I can, to take responsibility as someone who has a few caps behind him," he acknowledged. "But you can go too far down this road, in my opinion. For one thing, I have to concentrate on my own game first and foremost, because if I get that wrong I'll be no use to anyone. For another, it's not right for me to go round mollycoddling people who have earned the right to play in this game by performing well enough, and for long enough, to persuade the selectors to pick them.

"We all know there are some injuries in the England set-up, but these blokes have proved themselves in the eyes of the people who matter. Anthony and Paul are parts of the machine, just as I am. We'll do this thing together."

Noon may not be the swankiest outside centre to don the white shirt in the last quarter of a century - he is no Clive Woodward or Simon Halliday, still less a Jeremy Guscott - but what he lacks in high-rolling panache, he makes up for in honest endeavour. This is not to damn him with faint praise, for rugby virtue is a many-splendoured thing. Think back to the 2003 World Cup-winning team and ask whether England would have wrested the trophy from Australia's iron grip without Richard Hill slaving away up front and Mike Tindall manning the barricades behind the scrum. The answer? Probably not. Yet Hill famously struggled to recognise himself in his own shaving mirror, while Tindall's public profile was positively subterranean compared with those of Matt Dawson, Jason Robinson and Will Greenwood. Not to mention Jonny What's-his-name.

Andy Robinson, the head coach of the England team, has been a fully signed-up member of the Noon Appreciation Society for a couple of years now, and it seems as though Brian Ashton, reappointed as attack coach in the aftermath of the mass back-room sackings last April, is beginning to think along similar lines.

On the face of it, the 27-year-old from Goole is not Ashton's type, but he has shown the great innovator enough invention of his own to make a convert of him. Noon tackles far above his weight, has an eye for the half-chance and commits himself body and soul to the cause. These things are givens. But Ashton has seen more, and wants everyone else to see it too.

"Apart from a couple of sessions when I was much younger, I hadn't worked with Brian at all until we went to Australia last summer," Noon said. "In many ways, he preaches a similar message to John Fletcher, my coach at Newcastle. We've had good, creative back divisions up there for as long as I can remember - you can imagine how frustrating players find it to be labelled uncreative in an England context, while playing with freedom and self-expression at club level. I'm confident that with Brian on board, we'll bring some of that freedom to the international stage.

"Things are much less structured under him, although it isn't anarchy by any means. While he encourages players to make decisions for themselves, he comes down very hard on what he considers to be wrong decisions."

Even though the England backs have had their good days since running Saturn-like rings round the Wallabies in Melbourne in the summer of 2003, they have been few and far between. There is now a common perception, from Dublin to Dunedin via Bloemfontein and Brisbane, that what the red-rose pack secures with one hand, their colleagues in the threequarters surrender with the other. Noon has been one of the fixed points in the world champions' midfield as their reputation has plummeted like a stone. Has the criticism been fair, or are he and his colleagues the victims of uninformed oversimplification.

"What do you mean, criticism?" he asked, his tone dripping with irony. "When was that?" Then, in a split second, he was serious again. "There has been an element of truth in some of the things said and written," he admitted, "but if you asked me to put a finger on why things have gone wrong in the way they have, I'd find it very difficult.

"As always, there is a combination of factors. Sometimes we've been naïve, sometimes we've been wasteful, sometimes we've just fallen off our own standards.

"If you look at the two Tests we played in Australia last June, we created clear-cut opportunities - one on ones, two on ones - and failed to take them. The Wallabies? They nailed every chance that came their way, and as a result, the scoreboard looked bad. Great sides take a very high percentage of their opportunities. We haven't done that for a while now.

"Look back to last year, when we played New Zealand at Twickenham. We put them under real pressure in that game; we stressed them massively, forced them into making poor judgement calls and reduced them to falling back on foul play. Three of them ended up in the sin bin, remember. Yet we didn't drive home the advantage.

"If we're to turn that around in this match, we have to be even more aggressive, more determined to take it to them. This is the time to do it. Right now. We've been picked to play for England against the All Blacks, the most fantastic fixture anyone could hope to be a part of. This is what we strive for, why we do what we do. If ever there was a moment for a player to be the best he can be, this is it."

How close is Noon to achieving the happy quintessence he describes? "I'm more relaxed than I was about playing international rugby," he replied. "Initially, I thought I had to do something special to catch the eye. I would say to myself: 'You've got one shot at this, so you need to do things - make a nice break or a big tackle.' Now, I'm happy to let the game unfold, play with my head up and see what happens. I trust my instincts far more. I'm calmer these days, and more confident, too.

"Mind you, I still get myself pumped for a match. I don't put on my shirt until the last second before we leave the dressing-room, because I work so hard and sweat so much during the warm-up, I'd overheat if I did it any earlier. And I don't watch those motivational tapes the night before a game, either. They get me so revved up, I can't sleep."

England will need two Noons in one tomorrow: the destructive high-octane mayhem merchant, together with the calculating midfield enforcer. It is the kind of role Tana Umaga performed for the All Blacks, until he called it a day at the end of last year's Grand Slam tour. It would be stretching a point to describe Noon as an English Umaga, but he can at least make the New Zealanders wish the great man was still around.