Lipman faces the litmus test of loyalty

If the Red Rose new boy faces the Wallabies, it will be a meeting of friends. Tim Glover explains
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The Independent Online

If Clive Woodward had a pound for every time somebody made reference to England's great strength in depth he'd be sitting prettier than a football agent. The Zurich Premiership may be the rich soil that has nourished the Red Rose to best in show but that doesn't stop Woodward from recruiting players to whom the national anthem could be anathema.

The Elizabeth most associated with Mike Catt is the Port in South Africa, where he was born and raised. Ancestral ties and a British passport enabled him to make a commitment to England. Matt Stevens, the young Bath prop, is in a similar position while Stuart Abbott and Fraser Waters are South Africans who are enriching Wasps and England.

There are no echoes here of Grannygate, the eligibility scandal that affected Wales when Graham Henry promoted a few New Zealanders who were subsequently found to have no Welsh qualification. The latest convert to England's cause was born in London and has a British passport. It's just that Michael Lipman sounds Australian, looks Australian and plays like an Australian. He would probably have been more at home in the gold of the Wallabies than the white of England but Lipman is not complaining. "I am absolutely delighted,'' he said. "I couldn't be happier."

Lipman's family emigrated to Australia when he was five and he grew up in Sydney, or more specifically it's bohemian outpost Manly, where dressing for dinner consists of shorts and a T-shirt and where rugby players are two a dollar. He did the Manly thing - surfing and bar work is almost obligatory - in between playing sports and chilling out. Manly is also where Woodward cut his coaching teeth.

Lipman was in a bar, toasting the departure of a brother to Europe when a couple of things happened that changed his life. "In New York it was 9/11 and we were watching the Twin Towers coming down. Then I took a call on my mobile from my agent.''

In the midst of death, life in the Premiership goes on and Bristol, who had been sent Lipman's CV, liked what they saw. They had never actually seen him play but they offered him a job none the less. The next day Lipman was on a plane to London. "Bristol were pretty desperate,'' he said with disarming honesty.

Lipman had two eventful years with the ill-fated West Country club and won the respect of Dean Ryan and Peter Thorburn, who were then coaching at the Memorial Ground. Twelve months ago Bristol were relegated. "We were released without any compensation,'' Lipman said. "It had been an experience and I thought it was over.''

He was prepared to return Down Under, rejoin his old club Warringah, get out the surfboard and catch up on his bar work when the Australian hierarchy at Bath asked him if he would like to fill the No 7 jersey. In a back-row featuring Andy Beattie and the Samoan Isaac Feaunati, Lipman and Bath have prospered out of all recognition, although his selection for England's tour of New Zealand and Australia is something else.

"It's like a fairytale. If I play against Australia in Brisbane I won't be able to describe it. A lot of fingers would point at me and imagine the sledging. It would be a hell of a challenge and very strange.'' So, was Lipman mouthing "Advance Australia Fair" at the start of the World Cup final? "As long as it was a really good game it didn't bother me who won. I had friends playing for Australia, I was brought up there. When I have a break here I always want to go home. I love the weather, I grew up on the beaches.

"But I was born in England and they're the best team in the world and I want to play at the highest level. In Australia there are plenty of good open-sides. I didn't want to be a second-rate flanker or spend my time sitting on a bench. I wanted something different. When Bristol showed an interest I had to say yes or no quickly, the only thing keeping me in Australia was a job in a bar. Bristol took a big punt. I'm here for a reason and I've been rewarded. I'm pretty lucky.''

Lipman, who is 24, featured in the Australian Under-19 and Under-21 squads but his path to anything more serious was blocked by the brilliant George Smith, who happens to be a close friend. "Neil Back's retirement from international rugby has opened the door,'' Lipman added. "I've got to take the opportunity, and play the best I can. This is not like wearing the Rotherham jersey. This is a big honour and I am thrilled. If I play for England I will be totally committed. My dad's English, my mum's Australian and I am not sure what that makes me, but obviously if I am pulling on the English jersey I'm making a big statement.''