Joe Worsley: Relighting the fire

His talent was nearly extinguished in Clive Woodward's England era. Under Andy Robinson it is bursting into flame
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The Independent Online

Joe Worsley stands 6ft 5in in his socks and weighs the best part of 18st. When he sits at the piano in an England team hotel - he is not about to knock Alfred Brendel off his perch, but guests the world over have witnessed a marked improvement at the keyboard - he looks like Giant Haystacks hovering over an unusually small helping of nouvelle cuisine. It is difficult to imagine anyone treating him like a child, but he describes his long relationship with Sir Clive Woodward as one of the teacher-pupil variety. He is not being complimentary, either. We are not talking Dead Poets' Society here. We are talking Mr Quelch and Billy Bunter.

"At the end of the day," Worsley said this week after being named in the starting line-up for the world champions' awkward meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield this evening, "England won a World Cup under Clive. I'm not in the business of whingeing and whining about the problems I had while he was coach. It would be demeaning for me, and demeaning for him. Let's just say I spent a lot of my time in the squad biting my lip. I was shot down in flames a few times, not just in training but for things I did around the hotel. After that, it was a matter of keeping my head down. I wouldn't describe it as a dictatorship, but it wasn't the most positive environment I've ever encountered."

That was then. Press the fast-forward button to the here and now and the Wasps flanker is to be found in something approaching his element. Andy Robinson, who succeeded Woodward in the autumn of 2004, speaks repeatedly about "empowering" his players, and no one has been empowered more than Worsley. It is as though someone has connected him to the National Grid. His performance in Rome a fortnight ago was his most complete in an international shirt, and while he steadfastly refuses to wallow in his own achievement against the Italians - "I have played well for England before, you know" - his display was undoubtedly a high watermark.

Prior to Worsley setting about all and sundry in the Eternal City, his Test career had seemed to many an eternal low watermark. Indeed, it sometimes appeared the river had run dry. Woodward had been the first to take a punt on the young back-rower from Welwyn Garden City, giving him a couple of cannon-fodder caps against the big-hit merchants of Tonga and Fiji during the 1999 World Cup, but there would be no more starts until a weakened England set sail for North America in 2001 - a three-match tour that ran alongside the Lions' trip to Australia. Worsley did not impress Woodward at that time. A serious injury suffered by his elder and better at Wasps, Lawrence Dallaglio, gave him another opening, but he knew his place in the coach's scheme, and it was not the place he craved.

This was underlined on two occasions. The first, during the 2003 World Cup, saw him publicly lambasted by Woodward after an unfortunate incident towards the end of a ruthless dismantling of Uruguay in the concluding pool match. England were a mere 100 points up when Worsley hit an opponent with a tackle so high it might have felled Buzz Aldrin, half an hour after lift-off. As he mooched off to the sin bin, he made the innocent but profoundly naïve mistake of applauding the red rose supporters. Woodward, acutely conscious of the potential for "Arrogant England" headlines, went spare. Worsley did not feature again in the tournament.

The second was even more pointed. No longer in charge of England but very much in charge of the Lions, Woodward ignored a quite brilliant performance by Worsley in last year's Premiership final between Wasps and Leicester, declining to include him in a 45-man party bound for All Black country. The fact that he selected Neil Back, so badly outplayed by Worsley in the Twickenham showpiece that he smashed his rival in the face and earned himself a richly deserved suspension ruling him out of the first three matches of the New Zealand itinerary, merely added insult to injury. Even when the injuries kicked in, Woodward stuck to his guns. Simon Easterby of Ireland, Ryan Jones of Wales and Jason White of Scotland all received the call to arms. Worsley heard nothing but silence. Had the cupboard been completely bare, Woodward would have picked Old Mother Hubbard herself rather than go the Worsley route.

Add the knee injury suffered last October - a minor calamity that allowed the highly motivated Pat Sanderson, of Worcester, to show the best of himself during the pre-Christmas internationals - and it would have been entirely understandable had Worsley buried himself in a pit of his own despondency. But Robinson, denied the old back-row certainties that made Woodward's decision-making in that area easier than falling off a log, kept the 28-year-old Wasp in his sights and set about piecing him back together. Now, at the mid-point of the Six Nations, there is only one definite loose-forward starter from England's champion club, and he does not go by the name of Dallaglio.

"I feel able to speak up a lot more these days," Worsley remarked, acknowledging his new-found sense of belonging in a more relaxed England set-up. "Not that I do it all the time. I loathe it when people open their mouths without having anything to say. But there is definitely more leeway now, more of a dialogue, and that's an improvement from where I'm standing. Look, some people have a better opinion of the way Clive did things. Some got along in that environment in a way I didn't. My only point is that, having had my eyes opened at Wasps by Warren Gatland [the former All Black hooker who guided the club to unprecedented success both domestically and in Europe], I found it difficult to deal with the more controlled system imposed by Clive."

Worsley will win his 47th cap today, which makes him a senior international in anyone's language. If he plays through the championship, he will end it more decorated than Dean Richards. Many of the most celebrated English blind-side specialists of recent memory - the John Halls and Mike Teagues and Mick Skinners - finished their careers stuck in the twenty-somethings. Yet there is much of the Worsley story still to be written, for he remains a work in progress some seven years after his Test debut. He has no doubt that the work will be completed.

"Back in '99, when England picked me for a pre-World Cup training camp in Australia, I remember looking at all the big names around me and thinking: 'I'm better than some of you. I can fit in here'," he recalled. "It wasn't arrogance. I simply had the confidence any player needs when he starts operating at the top. If you're a timid sort, you won't get picked, so faith in your own ability is absolutely crucial. I've always had that faith, and I haven't changed my mind about myself from that first day in Queensland. I still think I'm better, and I still believe I can fit in."

Happily, Robinson takes a similar view. "The one thing we always knew about Joe was that he had the talent, the fitness and the physicality to make it as an England international," the coach said this week. "Where he has improved is in the stuff that goes on upstairs, in his head. He is more mature now. He has a greater understanding of the situation around him, of how he can best shape a game and play to his own strengths."

Those strengths were there for all to see at Stadio Flaminio, where Worsley's stars gathered together in perfect alignment. "Stars? I don't know if they were all in a line, but I certainly saw a few of them when I took a smack on the head early on," he said. "That aside, it was an enjoyable contest. I love to play rugby when all 15 people in the team are trying to do something all the time, whether it be hitting a ruck or running a line or creating some space or offering an option. That's the game I relish. Under Clive, we played within a structure regardless of who was picked. Now, we base our style around the people involved. It makes more sense to me, and I think people will see the value of this approach as we grow as a team."

It is good to see Worsley so close to fulfilment. Too often in the past, he has been a peripheral figure: a mighty talent, a natural athlete armed with a uniquely effective defensive game, but somehow forlorn. Rather like the current captain, Martin Corry, he spent years as an outsider peering into the magic back-row circle formed by Dallaglio, Back and Richard Hill. Corry won 18 of his first 25 caps off the bench; Worsley won 13 of his first 25 in the same shop-soiled fashion. Both men have required the virtue of patience. Corry, the more stoical of the two, probably found the waiting easier to bear.

Did Worsley ever fear he would suffer the long, slow death of the international sportsman who, perhaps through no fault of his own, never quite makes it? Did he ever feel like giving it up as a bad job? "Never," he replied. "Whatever the frustration, the enjoyment of being involved at international level has always been greater. Once you've experienced Test rugby, you want it again and again. The taste of it makes it all worthwhile." Everything? "Yes, everything."

Another world: Joe Worsley's debut

* ENGLAND 101 TONGA 10

(15 October, 1999, Twickenham) Even though he is now 28, Joe Worsley has been in and out of the England set-up so often that he still has the air of a newcomer. But to have an idea of how long he has been around, think back to his debut. Clive Woodward, then a humble man of the people, picked him against Tonga in the last pool fixture of the 1999 World Cup. England scored more than 100 points in a rough-house of a contest, and Worsley held his place for the play-off match with Fiji before giving way to Neil Back for the quarter-final against South Africa. Six years on, he is the only survivor in England's team today, and only Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio are still in the squad.

England: M Perry; A Healey, J Guscott, W Greenwood, D Luger; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Rowntree, P Greening, P Vickery, M Johnson (capt), G Archer, J Worsley, R Hill, L Dallaglio.

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