England have done some peculiar things with their back row since the back row to end them all disbanded in the aftermath of the 2003 World Cup. Joe Worsley of Wasps was selectorially crucified, then resurrected; Chris Jones of Sale was baptised as a blind-side flanker before being confirmed as a second-row forward; Andy Hazell of Gloucester was excommunicated almost before he had taken his vows. Last autumn, the coaches managed to pick all three loose forwards out of position, which was quite some achievement. It did nothing to wrong-foot the All Blacks, but it confused the hell out of the Twickenham faithful.
Oh for the days of certainty - the days of Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill and Neil Back, who played together in a zillion games and won at least a jillion of them. England have never quite replaced them somehow, especially that little ferret Back. Open-side flanker being the heartbeat position it is, the rest of the team depends on the role being performed properly. Ask Australia, who have Phil Waugh and George Smith at their disposal. Ask New Zealand, who have a freak by the name of Richie McCaw prowling the prairies in pursuit of the killer turnover. A world-class No 7 does not necessarily make for a world-class team, but there are no world-class teams without a world-class No 7.
Magnus Lund is the latest Englishman - not to mention the first Anglo-Norwegian - to pull on the shirt with a view to making it his own. No one accuses him of being a Waugh or a Smith, still less a McCaw, but given time, he could be extremely useful to the red-rose cause purely and simply as a Lund. He is not a nose-to-the-ground sniffer dog like the Wallaby pair, although he gets himself over the ball with encouraging regularity these days. If anything, he is more reminiscent of the extraordinary New Zealand captain, although the comparison is unsustainable for more than a phrase or two. Certainly, he is a formidably fit and athletic specimen, blessed with failsafe hands, a footballing brain and a willingness to stick his head where 99 per cent of the population would hesitate to put a big toe. It is not bad to be going on with. Not bad at all.
"The big thing you need in this position is desire - that and a capacity not to worry about what your face might look like at the end of a game," he said this week, gingerly caressing a livid spot in the middle of his nose where a large circle of flesh used to be. "John Wells [the England forwards coach] is really big on attitude. He used to be a back-rower himself, so he knows the score. He's always reinforcing the value of hard work and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win this ball on the floor or make that last tackle. He has a lot of ideas on how I should play in the England environment, but he bases those ideas around what I already bring to the party as an individual. It's a very positive environment and I'm loving it."
And why not? Last week, on his second international start, he put a try past the Scots in front of a Twickenham audience revelling in a fresh outbreak of Jonnymania with such abandon that some of them spilt Chablis on their freshly ironed corduroys. It was his first time over the whitewash at Test level, and while he will not score an easier five points as long as he draws breath - "I was pushed out the side of a maul, found myself all on my own on the short side with no one in front and yelled to Harry Ellis to give me the ball; happily, he heard me while the Scots didn't" - it meant the world to him.
"A first try playing for your country? At Twickenham? Couldn't be better, could it?" said the 23-year-old business enterprise graduate, not unreasonably. "Mind you, there's no point getting carried away. We have so many top-quality loose forwards after places in the starting line-up, one false move or one flash of overconfidence could undo an awful lot of hard work. This is a big opportunity for me, clearly - World Cup year and all that - and I don't need to tell you how much I want to establish myself as a first-choice England player. But it's about making progress game on game, isn't it? If I can make this week's contribution better that last week's and keep doing it right through to the end of the Six Nations and beyond, I'll at least give myself a chance of staying in the side."
Lund has a strong line in old-fashioned northern common sense - very northern indeed in his case, given that his father, Morten, is a former Norwegian basketball international who still lives in Oslo. Another son, Erik, is a 6ft 8in lock who currently plays for Earth Titans, otherwise known as Rotherham. Magnus, raised in the Lake District, was one heck of a basketball player himself, but when push came to shove he turned his back on the Barrow Thorns - glamour means nothing to this man - and threw in his lot with Sale.
Which has been the making of him, even this season, when he has been forced to summon every last ounce of energy and enthusiasm in an effort to shore up the ruins of a Premiership-winning team all but destroyed by orthopaedic calamity.
"It's been hard," he confessed. "There have been times when I've thought 'It must be my turn, because I'm the last one standing'. To be fair to the club, they've done their best for me, resting me whenever they could see their way to doing so. I'm not the sort to ask for a week off; open-side flankers are the last ones to shy away. But everyone has a limit somewhere.
"We've had a frustrating time of it since the injuries starting kicking in - having won the title in May, it's difficult to handle being halfway down the table come February. There again, you learn something about yourself in these circumstances. Celebrating is easy. Picking up the pieces is a little more challenging. If anything good has come out of the last few weeks, it's been the sight of guys standing up and showing how much they want to be a part of a successful Sale, even when they've had to strap themselves up just to get on the field. A lot has been asked of some people, and they've responded with real guts."
Over the last 12 months or so, Lund has worked ferociously on the groundwork part of his game, encouraged in characteristically wholehearted fashion by Kingsley Jones, the Welsh international open-side specialist who now coaches at Edgeley Park under the stewardship of Philippe Saint-André.
The effort is paying handsome dividends. At 6ft 3in, Lund is unusually tall for a No 7; by comparison, Back was a midget. Yet he is shaping up nicely on the subterranean front and can now count ball-winning among his strengths, along with his ultra-reliable line-out work - a real boon for England last weekend - and his basketball-style handling game, which first flowered on the international seven-a-side circuit.
It does not cross Lund's mind that he might one day come to be seen as part of a loose trio sufficiently accomplished to be mentioned in the same breath as the Hill-Back-Dallaglio combination. "You can't replace those three," he said, with scarcely a moment's thought. "The time they stayed together, the matches they won... that consistency of performance happens very rarely. There again, I'd like to think those of us in the current England back row will develop a consistency of our own. I thought we played a reasonably well-balanced game against Scotland and gave ourselves something to build on."
Was it reassuring to have a gnarled campaigner like Martin Corry, the recently deposed captain, alongside him on his Six Nations debut? "Definitely," he agreed. "He's a great guy. To come through the things he's been confronted with recently and play as he did against the Scots - well, it was nothing short of amazing in my book. He deserves more credit than he receives. He may have lost the captaincy to Phil Vickery, but he hasn't changed a bit. He's still there, large as life, cracking the whip as usual."
And so to Italy, who will pose a very different challenge to the England pack. "I see some hard work ahead of us," he conceded. "I certainly expect the contest on the floor to be extremely tough. But it's not just down to me. These days, all 15 players need a touch of the No 7 about them. They have to get their head in there and do the necessary." Even if they end up with a mouthful of stitches, like Jonny Wilkinson last weekend? "He looked the worst of all of us, didn't he?" Lund said with a smirk. "Still, it's best not to make fun. It will probably be me this time. It's what I'm there for, apparently."Reuse content