Last chance for Paul to pull off England's inside job

Comfortable at centre, the ex-Wigan code-breaker aims to finally prove himself worthy to wear the red rose, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Sir Clive Woodward may have mastered the art of contradicting himself, often between two commas, during his long and unprecedentedly successful stint as head coach of the England team, but he knew his mind when it came to selection. Henry Paul, one of the world's more extravagant footballing talents, was not fast-tracked into the élite squad when he switched codes from rugby league in the autumn of 2001, but jet-propelled into it - one match for Gloucester, job done. Forty-one miserable minutes of international activity later, Paul found himself heading down Sayonara Street. A player knew where he stood with Woodward, even when he was not invited to stop.

Sir Clive Woodward may have mastered the art of contradicting himself, often between two commas, during his long and unprecedentedly successful stint as head coach of the England team, but he knew his mind when it came to selection. Henry Paul, one of the world's more extravagant footballing talents, was not fast-tracked into the élite squad when he switched codes from rugby league in the autumn of 2001, but jet-propelled into it - one match for Gloucester, job done. Forty-one miserable minutes of international activity later, Paul found himself heading down Sayonara Street. A player knew where he stood with Woodward, even when he was not invited to stop.

But does anyone know where they stand with Paul? It is a moot point. Promoted to England's starting line-up for this afternoon's Test with Canada at Twickenham - his first start in the jersey of his adopted country - he remains an illusory figure, a chimera in protective headgear and fancy boots. Sometimes, his rugby is brilliantly vivid in a hallucinatory kind of way; sometimes, he does a Lord Lucan and disappears off the face of the earth. After one particularly reticent Heineken Cup performance against Munster in Limerick, a travelling Gloucester supporter remarked bitterly: "God is alive. He just doesn't want to get involved."

Yet Woodward's successor, Andy Robinson, takes the firm view that Paul can drag England at least a few yards back up the hill they have been descending from the moment they allowed the Irish to take possession of Twickenham a little more than eight months ago. Can this be right? After all, it is only a couple of years since Philippe Saint-André, the Frenchman who attempted to coach the New Zealand-born 13-a-sider in the subtleties of the 15-man game at the most traditional of English clubs - honestly, you couldn't make it up - asked with a weary sigh: "Is it my job to prepare a team for a Premiership match, or to teach one man how to play union?" The question was not posed in such a way that it required an answer.

Other coaches are more generous towards Paul, however. None more so than Brian Ashton, the great free-thinker of the English game; a man who, along with Pierre Villepreux of France, has done most to open European minds to the attacking possibilities of the union code. It is frequently forgotten in many parts of these islands, although not in the West Country, that Ashton coached both Paul and Jason Robinson at Bath for four months in 1996 - months during which the Recreation Grounders played rugby bordering on the sublime, scoring more than 40 points a game in the league. Eight years on, he describes Paul as a central figure in that explosion of sporting innovation.

"Henry didn't understand rugby union when he came to us from Wigan, but he certainly understood rugby, if you see what I mean," Ashton recalled this week. "In terms of the skills common to both codes - running, passing, kicking, breaking tackles while making your own, the creation and use of space - he was absolutely at the cutting edge. When Henry and Jason let it be known they were interested in a spell in union, I thought: 'Jesus, this is an unbelieveable opportunity.' The thought of them joining the players we already had, the Catts, Guscotts and De Glanvilles, was seriously exciting.

"We picked them to play in a midweek game against Swansea, three days after they'd turned out for Wigan in a Grand Final at Old Trafford. Now, Swansea were a bloody good side at that point, a team used to scoring 60 points a game. We beat them 87-13, playing rugby of a kind I'd never previously witnessed. And this was after a couple of brief meetings with the league lads and one training session, to get ourselves organised. It was sensational. Henry was playing in midfield, and I'd worried myself daft about how he would cope in contact. As it turned out, there was no contact. He just beat people one-on-one, eliminating a whole area of concern in the process."

Ashton, one of Woodward's phalanx of Test coaches until 2002 and now in charge of the national academy, credits Paul with the setting of new standards. "He impressed me with his confidence, and with his willingness to experiment," he said. "He dared to be different. Oh, and one other thing. He was an incredible physical specimen - so remarkable, in fact, that the current England coach, who was then a team-mate, refused to change next to him, on the basis that he looked sad by comparison. I'm not sure Andy will thank me for divulging that piece of information."

So, what happened? How did Paul, who flummoxed an entire Twickenham full house with a single shimmy of the hips and left them for dead in the slipstream of his acceleration during Wigan's compelling raid on the Middlesex sevens tournament in the summer of 1996, come to spend long years in the sporting shadowlands, half-in and half-out of a variety of heavily populated England squads but never part of the inner circle? Ashton believes his spells at outside-half and full-back did him few favours - "He's always been an inside centre in my book," he insisted - but Paul is perfectly willing to confront his own failings.

"That time at Bath under Brian [Ashton] and John Hall turned me on to union, for sure; it was a completely positive experience," he said, just a few hours after being named in the England team for the first Test of the post-Woodward era. "But union had only just been professionalised at that point, so people from my sporting background were able to show a thing or two without thinking too much. Since then, it's been more difficult. The fitness levels and the intensity have grown year on year, so my problems in the aspects of union that were unknown in league - the mauling, the placement of the ball in contact, the whole theory of phase play - have taken me a while to address. I still try to play my natural game on the basis of what I see in front of me, but there are some realities about union that have to be appreciated. In that sense, I'm still learning.

"I've had my disappointments. I didn't feel good about being left out of the World Cup squad, and it wasn't great for me when I failed to make the tour to New Zealand and Australia in the summer. But I've always had a move-on-to-what's-next philosophy. If you miss out, you train through the hurt and make sure that if you're called upon at some point in the future, you're properly prepared and in a position to give it your best shot.

"At least I've found my role now. I enjoyed playing at outside-half and full-back, but I enjoy inside centre more than either of those positions. I've worked hard on my strength and I'm better able to play a contact game now, although I still prefer to use my pass, to get people running off me. It's a process, isn't it? There is no complete player out there, so far as I know. Whether you've played one Test or 100 Tests, there are going to be days when it flows and days when everything is a struggle."

If Jason Robinson is massively in credit with the union fraternity, the 30-year-old Paul remains in the red, despite his contribution to the development of England's sevens team, who now rank alongside New Zealand at the top of the log. Only a completely convincing performance in both the handling and kicking departments against the likes of South Africa and Australia, who visit Twickenham over the next fortnight, will ease the debt he has accrued since his big-money, razzmatazz-fuelled move from Wigan.

Should Ashton, devout in his belief that Paul has both the ability and the maturity to pass muster as a tactical general at Test level, be proved correct in the coming weeks, the more suspicious Woodward may yet offer the shop-soiled maestro the chance to rediscover the glories of his New Zealand homeland with the 2005 Lions. But if Paul messes up again, there will be no third chance. Will Greenwood is sitting on the bench this afternoon; Jonny Wilkinson aims to be playing sooner rather than later; Olly Barkley, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait are the coming men. Modern-day midfields are highly congested areas, and England's is more log-jammed than most.

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