Kid from hell is part of the family for all Saints

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Sheets of drizzle sweep across the town, this rugby town, and it is the type of rain that gets under the skin. There is a biting wind, too, reddening the ears, stinging the eyes.

Sheets of drizzle sweep across the town, this rugby town, and it is the type of rain that gets under the skin. There is a biting wind, too, reddening the ears, stinging the eyes.

This is the back pitch at Franklins Gardens, home of the European champions, and Northampton's first-team squad are only halfway through a two-and-a-half-hour training session. Garry Pagel glances round and cracks a smile. He likes this.

Colin Deans, Northampton's front-five coach, notes the grin. "The biggest kid in the Premiership," he calls Pagel, and on the first count there is no argument: Pagel is 18 stones-plus of muscle and gristle packed into a six-foot frame. But a "kid"?

"Oh yes," says Deans, the former Scotland and Lions hooker. "He's always up to his tricks. I was standing at training one day. One or two of the boys were having a discussion, and I'm putting in my pennyworth. Garry just came across and whacked me in the back, laid me out. He nearly bloody killed me. He thought it was great."

Deans, make no mistake, thinks Pagel is great. So too, however grudgingly, do the vast majority of opponents the South African has crossed swords with in three years of European rugby since he joined Northampton from Western Province.

Five times a Test Springbok, Pagel has carved a reputation with the Saints as a fearless, fearsome scrummager, argu-ably the best in the Premiership. Last week he returned from a rare injury lay-off to destroy an England-quality front row in Northampton's win over Bath. As the Saints prepared for their Premiership date at Wasps today, followed by the opening chapter of their Heineken Cup defence away to Biarritz on Saturday, Deans gave Pagel a ringing endorsement.

"He's one in a million," Deans says. "His technique is unique. It's something you cannot teach, a natural feeling for the position. He's near to perfection. Not just a typical South African prop, but one of the best they have ever produced."

Nature and nurture both played a part with Pagel. He was born 34 years ago, at King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, and raised in farming country. Sheep, dairy cattle, loosehead props: all reared to be beasts of substance.

Pagel represented Eastern Province before heading west to Cape Town and, in 1993, he stepped out at Newlands for Western Province against the touring France XV. Early in the match, the French skipper, Jean-François Tordo, sustained a horrific facial wound, requiring 50 stitches. Pagel was found guilty of reckless use of the boot and, although the videotape evidence was not wholly conclusive, he was suspended for the rest of that season, a ban later halved on appeal.

It was a hard road to rehabilitation, but it reached a happy conclusion at the 1995 World Cup, when Pagel made the South African squad on home soil. "There was no tension over selection for the final," he recalls. "I was told I would be on, early in thesecond half."

So it proved, and a marvellous photo, snapped at the moment of the final whistle, tells a tale. The picture shows François Pienaar, the Boks' victorious captain, down on one knee, giving thanks. A couple of backs are leaping ecstatically in the air. Pagel, meanwhile, appears to be about to land one on the All Blacks' prop Richard Loe.

"We were having a sort of scuffle at a scrum," Pagel says, a twinkle in his eyes above a nose that would give a plastic surgeon nightmares. "We didn't realise the game was over."

That's the front row for you. They occupy their own private world, which is probably just as well for the rest of us decent, law-abiding citizens. Deans, for one, vehemently insists that referees have absolutely no idea what is going on in the scrum, and although effective scrummaging will not win a match on its own, it is a great place to start.

Pagel won just one more Test cap, against New Zealand in 1996, his ambitions thwarted by a post-World Cup injury combined with a selectorial preference for the gargantuan Ollie le Roux and Os du Randt. But he caught the eye of the then Northampton coach Ian McGeechan when the Lions went to South Africa in 1997.

Jason Leonard was on the tight head for the tourists against Western Province when he was, according to one report, "launched like an Apollo space rocket, with Pagel serving as Cape Canaveral". Pagel's version: "It wasn't Jason's best position." Props enjoy their victories, but rarely gloat.

Pagel accepted McGeech-an's offer to move north to Northampton and, by way of a thank you, Western Province dropped Pagel from the 1997 Currie Cup final. As Nick Mallett has found this week, South African rugby can be a ruthless business.

The Saints are sporting a new halo this season. The European Union's circle of gold stars adorns their club crest. Last season their only blip in the Heineken Cup was an away defeat in Grenoble, and Saturday's trip to Biarritz is expected to serve up the forward battle Pagel revels in. Northampton's French lock Olivier Brouzet has provided the inside knowledge, the match will be live on BBC television, and England expects.

"For me, the European Cup win was better than the World Cup," says Pagel. "We are like a family here. But every team will be after us now, wanting to knock the champions down." And there is a look on his face that says "Just try it".