Dowson hopes Cup spotlight can lead to a bright England future
Saints flanker tells Chris Hewett why he expects a tough time from Perpignan tomorrow and why he is ready to serve his country
Saturday 30 April 2011
Noel Coward's notion that "work is much more fun than fun" is not entirely persuasive when it comes to rugby.
Steve Borthwick was, and is, commonly regarded as the hardest-working forward in the English game, but he does not appear to spend his days helpless with laughter – perhaps because Martin Johnson rewarded him for his unstinting efforts on behalf of the national team by dropping him like a stone the moment he picked up an injury. Ditto Chris Robshaw, the Harlequins captain, who is positively Borthwick-esque in his commitment to the cause of the moment, and similarly marginalised when it comes to red-rose selection.
The third man in the triumvirate of Trojans is Phil Dowson, once of Newcastle (where hard work always seemed harder than hard work anywhere else) and presently of Northampton, where life is just a little easier. "I loved my time at Newcastle: it hurts me to see them fighting relegation and I don't want them to go down," says the 29-year-old flanker. "But every week I spend here, it becomes clearer that I made the right decision to move. It's a completely different rugby environment. This club is incredibly professional in its approach, extremely serious about being successful and puts its players in the best place to achieve that success. I've always put in a lot of effort. At Northampton, you get a lot in return.
"There are no distractions or complications here. The deal is really simple: the players concentrate on their fitness and their form, the club does everything else. We have a brilliant conditioning team, fantastic medical back-up. We even have our own osteopath, who comes in and cracks our backs whenever they need cracking. When I decided to leave Newcastle I had three or four options, so it wasn't a no-brainer at the outset. It was when I talked to the people here and learnt about the scale of the ambition that the choice became reasonably straightforward."
It may well be that Dowson and Robshaw find themselves fighting over the last remaining back-row place in England's 30-man party for the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand. Johnson is certain to include Lewis Moody, Tom Croft, Tom Wood, James Haskell and Nick Easter on his flight-list, which puts a serious squeeze on the remaining contenders. The chances of the Leeds breakaway Hendre Fourie seem more remote by the day, and it is difficult to imagine the coaches reverting to Joe Worsley, the long-serving knock-'em-down specialist from Wasps, or turning to the extravagantly gifted Gloucester captain Luke Narraway, even though he is the form No 8 in the country. If Johnson finds space for a sixth loose forward, he is likely to pick one from two, not one from five.
Which is where this weekend comes in. Should Harlequins lose their Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final with Munster today – and there is every chance of them doing so, given that the game is being played in Ireland – they will have only one game left to them before packing up for the summer. Northampton are in a different position entirely. Not only do they have tomorrow's "home" Heineken Cup semi-final with Perpignan in Milton Keynes to salivate over, but they are 99 per cent certain to make the knock-out phase of the Aviva Premiership. If things go to plan over the next seven days, Dowson, still uncapped despite the consistency of his contribution since moving to Franklin's Gardens, could have the shop window all to himself.
"I haven't the faintest idea who's thinking what in the England camp at the moment," he says. "I want to represent my country, of course: I was called out to Australia during the tour last summer, enjoyed the taste of it and came back wanting more. Partly, it was my desire to play international rugby that prevented me looking at opportunities abroad after deciding to leave Newcastle, and while I still have that desire, I'll be sticking around. But it's not something I think about over the course of a normal week, although there were times during the Six Nations when I did a bit of wondering. Generally speaking, there are enough big games at Northampton to be going on with."
He does not even know if he will be playing for the second-string England Saxons during the Churchill Cup in June, although there is every chance he will be asked to put his shoulder to the wheel. This year's tournament features games against the United States and – wait for it – Tonga, who are not obviously the ideal opponents for players in dire need of some quality R and R after nine pulverising months of Premiership purgatory. "The one good thing about playing a team like Tonga," says Dowson with a weary smile, "is that there's no need for an osteopath. They crack your back for you."
If the men from the South Seas have been known to rattle a few ribcages, the men from the Roussillon region of France are, when they have it on them, capable of inflicting a physical assault so comprehensive that only a molecular biologist can measure its effects. Perpignan have long craved a European title, and as their participation in next season's tournament is to all intents and purposes dependent on victory in this season's, they are likely to be motivated up to their Catalan eyeballs.
"I don't think they'll be going too far off-page," says Dowson. "I wouldn't for a second describe them as one-dimensional: they're an archetypal French side, in that they have clever half-backs, some pace out wide and a good deal of flair about them when they're on the front foot. But that pack of theirs is an absolute brute, and they base everything around it. We know what's coming. Whatever happens, we'll be needing a fair bit of physio next week.
"Are we in a position to win this tournament, to see off the best sides from France and Ireland, with all the advantages they have over English clubs these days? We'll see, won't we? We were well beaten by Munster in last season's quarter-final and were taught a big lesson. But I believe we learnt that lesson, individually and collectively. I think someone like Stephen Myler [the Northampton outside-half] took something from seeing Ronan O'Gara squeeze the life out of us in the second half by playing the perfect territorial game; I think the sight of Doug Howlett doing the special things he does left a mark on our outside backs. That experience helped us take our rugby to a fresh level, and while no one can sit here and say that level is definitely good enough right now, we at least know that we aspire to be good enough, which is important to me."
Should the Midlanders make it through to the final and beat either Leinster or Toulouse to the trophy, the first man to lay hands on the silverware will be Dylan Hartley, the New Zealand-born England hooker. Dowson, who successfully guided Newcastle through two desperate relegation scraps before relocating and has captained the Saxons with some success, might have been a leadership candidate himself had the experiment with the combustible Hartley backfired, but as things stand, he is happy with his place in the rank and file.
"Dylan as captain? Brilliant decision," he says. "He's been absolutely inspirational, to the extent that I'd put him right up there alongside the best skippers I've known. He has the team at heart, and while he'd never admit it, he's really quite eloquent. Whenever he speaks to us, he speaks well. He's very New Zealandish in his rugby: he reads the game superbly and has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He's even got himself fit. He may look a bit of a fatty, but he's actually in tremendous nick."
Growing numbers believe Hartley will succeed Moody as England captain, either immediately after the World Cup or once next year's Six Nations is out of the way. Might Dowson feature alongside him in the England pack at some point? He had better shift his rear end, for once he breaks 30 at the start of October, his prospects will diminish. For a variety of reasons, these next two weeks or so are the most important of his career.
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