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From the Front Row: Lovers of life, alpha males, comedians and poets – there's room for all of them in the best teams
Sunday 20 March 2011
My oh my, never mind the fact that they were soundly beaten in Dublin yesterday, what a long way this England team have come. The regard in which our national team are now held the world over has shifted seismically. There is, without question, a sense that the hard times have now been overcome, and now maybe, just maybe, we can chalk those days down to experience. Let's call them character-building.
If you asked the men involved, they would doubtless point to sheer graft as the primary catalyst in this transformation. And, to an extent, they would be right. I'm not involved in the squad but I did tour last summer and I do talk to friends in the set-up. These guys train hard. Understandably, in a way, as they get very little time together to gel compared with life at their respective clubs.
But if you asked me, I would say that the blokes involved – the characters – are perhaps even more significant than the workload. It's always an interesting conversation among rugby players: Who would we pick if we were in Martin Johnson's shoes? Well, naturally, rugby ability is the first box to tick but, ideally, I'd want more than that; I'd want individuals in there around whom I could build a squad, solenoids around which the other boys would instinctively rally.
In the current squad you have guys like Chris Ashton who, as we have said before on these pages, just seems to love life – and this is infectious. I defy anyone not to smile around this guy; just watching him for five minutes is good enough. He's one of those types who makes you feel guilty for being grumpy and so is invaluable to his manager.
Another, different character is Nick Easter. He manages, in a completely unrehearsed, untaught way, to reign as alpha male in a room full of them. This status is not achieved through acts of overt machismo, but through a natural confidence for which, presumably, he has his parents to thank. I remember England's defence coach, Mike Ford, offering up a warning as to the threats posed by a member of the Australian team before last summer's Second Test in Sydney. "Don't worry, mate, I'll 'andle that," said Easter. And he did. If he disagrees with anyone in the room – his boss included – he says so, mincing no words in the process. It helps, of course, that on the field he is exactly the same and, at the same time, incredibly effective in his role.
For me, in a sports team there have to be laughs. Sometimes even we lucky few need reminding that the dream is being lived, and this is where James Haskell comes in. There is only one. His energy, his appetite for training and his commitment to the team make him a must-pick. I once walked past his hotel room at Twickenham and heard grunting and bumping behind the door. Fearing for his safety, I decided to investigate. Sadly, what I found didn't quite fit the rugby player profile of old; he was stood with his mate, Paul Doran-Jones, looking spent and dripping with sweat, neither of them wearing any more than underpants, having completed an impromptu bedroom work-out with a door-mounted machine bought for the purpose. Extra training, semi-naked, with rap music blaring; the new generation had arrived. I shuffled back to my room and cracked open the complimentary shortbread.
Then there are the new faces brought in to move the game on. Alex Corbisiero is the one who may yet make the biggest impact. He has managed to fit in so well that he might always have been there. I first saw him rapping in front of his London Irish team-mates in the gym on Sky Sports' The Rugby Club and wondered what had happened to the world. Wouldn't have caught Chilcott acting up like that, I thought. Then I realised that I was just jealous and decided to listen; he was actually quite brilliant. And so is his rugby. When reminded of his age, along with Dan Cole and Ben Youngs, I feel secure about the future of English rugby.
So let's continue to work hard. After all, little was achieved without elbow grease. But let us not forget the value of different personalities in this game. Yes, there is a place for robots, but there is room for the more exotic fruits, too. While I somehow can't see Cole signing up for a clammy hour of bedroom Body Pump with Haskell, I can envisage Corbisiero joining in, if only to provide the soundtrack. All shapes and sizes, as it ever was.
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