There are a number of individuals in the 36-man England squad for this year's Six Nations Championship - Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson and Simon Shaw spring immediately to mind - who had the pleasure, or otherwise, of playing against Andy Robinson when the national coach still had hair and looked good in shorts. Lee Mears is not among them. He was, however, taught by him, not only on the rugby field but in the classroom. "You made sure you did your homework when Andy was in charge," he recalled this week. "If you think he growls now, you should have seen him then."
If Mears ever flicked inkballs at the glowering Mr Robinson, or placed a Bunsen burner under his chair, or whispered "miserable old sod" behind his back, he appears to have got away with it. Identified by the coach some time ago as the latest Test-class hooker to emerge from the Bath club - Graham Dawe and Andy Long were both capped straight from the Recreation Ground, while the likes of Mark Regan, Federico Mendez and Jonathan Humphreys spent time there as seasoned internationals - Mears is very much in his good books. These days, he is more likely to receive a win bonus than a detention.
Having secured a first cap with a 40-minute run off the bench against the Samoans at Twickenham last November, the 26-year-old Devonian was a racing certainty to make the cut for the forthcoming gallop around the great rugby capitals of Europe. Yet last autumn he was one of two hookers, the other being Steve Thompson of Northampton. Now, he is one of three, due to the promotion of Leicester's busy little street urchin of a front-rower, George Chuter. Nothing gets easier in this game.
"I haven't been around the England scene long enough to assume anything," he said, "so when the squad was announced, I was delighted and relieved to be included. Then I spotted that there were three of us suddenly, and I got to wondering whether I had done anything wrong. But there is always going to be competition at this level, and as I'm the sort to relish whatever challenge is put in front of me, I'll enjoy the rivalry. As Mark Regan kept telling me when I was understudying him at Bath: 'Just keep digging in, son, and you'll get there.' He's been right so far."
Tomorrow, Mears and his fellow Six Nations contenders in the Bath tight five - the prop Matt Stevens and the two wonderfully complementary locks, Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock - take on the Irishmen of Leinster in a Heineken Cup match of some significance. A more accurate line-out thrower than the World Cup-winning Thompson, Mears has also been playing a more demanding level of rugby these last few weeks, thanks to Northampton's failure to qualify for a place among this season's European élite. Were it not for the fact that he is positively Lilliputian when compared with his Brobdingnagian rival, he would be a decent bet for a start against Wales in a fortnight's time.
Who knows? He might even oust Thompson at some point over the next seven weeks, for he is both unusually strong - Michael Foley, the former Wallaby hooker who coaches him at Bath, describes his "core strength" as "something else again" - and a busy ball-carrier with a startling range of handling skills. He will have to get over the size thing first, though. English rugby has moved on a fair way since Jack Rowell brought his "never mind the quality, feel the width" philosophy to bear on the national fortunes, but when it comes to selection, a good big 'un generally beats a good little 'un even now.
"Yes, I know all about the size thing," acknowledged Mears, who is listed as 5ft 9in and 15st 10lb - a far cry from Thompson's more lavish 6ft 2in and 18st 11lb. "But this game of ours is always moving around, and things change. When I was a kid watching my first games of rugby, most full-backs did nothing but kick goals. Then Christian Cullen came along and ripped everything up. You can have your big hookers, your Steve Thompsons and John Smits, but you can also have your Keven Mealamus these days. If the All Blacks pick Mealamu, that's good enough for me. Anyway, when it comes to the heavy-duty stuff, I've never felt inferior. Scrummaging is all about applying pressure, and you do that best by getting underneath an opponent. I reckon it's pretty difficult to get underneath me."
Eight years ago, Mears played in a wonderfully vibrant England Under-18 schools side featuring the likes of Borthwick, Andrew Sheridan, Mike Tindall, Iain Balshaw and some bloke by the name of Wilkinson and, not surprisingly, went through the season unbesmirched by defeat. They won a Grand Slam, then dished out hidings the length and breadth of Australia in an eight-match tour during which they scored almost 550 points and conceded 62. But the hooker was not one of the silver-spoon brigade. He had learned his rugby in Torquay and only headed north to Colston's School in Bristol because there was no sixth-form side at Paignton College.
"At the time, I didn't quite know what to do," he confessed. "But I'd gone up through the county ranks with Devon and made the England Under-16s, so when I was scratching around for options, some of the people I'd been playing with said 'come to Colston's' or 'come to Millfield'. I thought Millfield might be a step too far for a state school boy like myself, so I opted for Colston's. It was the right move, I think. The rugby tuition was superb there, and when we came to play Millfield we beat them."
A place in the Bath academy was his for the taking, and he took it. He played his first game of senior rugby as a teenager for the club's second-string, travelling to Orrell in the company of a couple of old front-row lags, Dave Hilton and Victor Ubogu, who promptly made him feel even smaller than his vital statistics suggested. "The two of them kept arguing about who would be responsible for the tap signal, which tells the scrum-half when to feed the ball at the set-piece," he said. "I remember thinking to myself: 'Hey, that's my job.' It was a wind-up, of course; they were like a comedy double-act. But what can you do? They were internationals - I was a nobody."
As his efforts to become a somebody at the club were obstructed by the sheer quality of the hookers in front of him, he wondered whether he might be obliged to leave the Rec for the sake of his career. "I felt I was making some progress as a player, but there were times when I felt short of rugby," he admitted. "There was a point some seasons ago when second-team rugby seemed to be dying a death, and with the senior places tied up, I was in danger of becoming a professional trainer rather than a professional player, a situation that gets on your nerves after a while. I'm glad I sat it out, though. Michael Foley arrived and helped make me what I am. I now find it difficult to imagine playing anywhere else."
Mears is rarely outplayed these days. Part of his ascent up the ladder is due to the ruthless expertise of the Bath tight unit as a whole; certainly, it must be a joyous experience playing alongside a forward like Grewcock, whose performances of late have been little short of stellar. It is also a fact that English rugby is in a phase of producing relatively small hookers - Chuter, Andy Titterrell of Sale, Matt Cairns of Saracens - and that Mears is currently the most potent of them. If there were three humungous Thompsons rather than one, the Bath man might now be fourth in the pecking order. But there is one, and one only.
Against Samoa, the newcomer looked the part. "I was whistled for a crooked throw at my first line-out, which was a bit embarrassing to say the least, but I felt a lot better once I had the ball in my hands," he said. "The Samoans enjoy a tackle, of course, and it wasn't long before I got whacked. But while international rugby is a yard or so quicker, the hits were pretty much what I'd experienced in the Premiership. It was a wonderful experience. We didn't turn in a pretty performance, but we put more points on them than any England side had managed previously, so some things must have been right."
Will he hack it against the big boys, though? The Springboks? The Pumas? France? "As I say, I love a challenge," he replied. "The next game is Wales, and I'd love to be a part of it. I watched last year's Six Nations as an outsider and was transfixed by it. If I'm given an opportunity this time, it will be a thousand times better."Reuse content