Joe Worsley has been playing international rugby for a dozen years now and has accumulated more England caps – 75 going on 76, having been restored to the starting line-up for the Six Nations set-to with Scotland on Saturday evening – than some of those to be found in that corner of the red-rose pantheon reserved for back-row forwards: Richard Hill, Neil Back and Peter Winterbottom, to name but three. It is a remarkable story, made all the more startling by the quiet manner of its unfolding.
Worsley would himself accept that some of his appearances for his country have been so low-profile as to flirt with invisibility: many of them, especially in the early years when Hill and Back were flanking the resolutely high-profile Lawrence Dallaglio, were made off the bench, and involved 10 minutes of rugby here and there. Yet at other times, his value to the national team has been as considerable as that of any other player on the field, not least over the course of last season's Six Nations Championship, when England finished runners-up to Ireland.
Can he make a similar contribution this time, starting at Murrayfield? It is a challenge, that's for sure. For one thing, the 32-year-old Wasp from London has only just recovered from a nasty problem of the knee ligament variety. For another, the biennial trip to Edinburgh is not exactly meat and drink for English rugby folk, who have good reason to loathe the place after a run of narrow, thoroughly depressing defeats there.
"The hostility up there is tangible," he said yesterday. "You can feel it in the air, in the attitude of the whole city. The Scots are always great to us after the game. Before it, they like to let you know what they think of you, so it's up to those of us who have experienced it to make the other members of the team aware and help them deal with the situation."
It is no more than water off a duck's back for Worsley, of course. He has attracted his share of brickbats down the years and is not noted for adopting a horizontal position when the flak is flying in his direction: indeed, he has been known to have it out with his critics in some extremely public spaces.
But very few of those critics would question his commitment to the England cause, and if he succeeds in cramping the style of his buccaneering opposite number John Barclay this weekend, the red-rose management will feel more than justified in making the difficult decision to drop a player as proven and as popular as Lewis Moody.
"We face a difficult challenge from a very good back-row unit," Worsley acknowledged. "They've been playing well together for Glasgow – the improvement in the club's fortunes in recent seasons has a lot to do with them – and with Andy Robinson coaching them at international level, we know they'll be mentally tough, as well as quick across the ground. I'm looking forward to testing myself against them. The excitement I feel nowadays is not so much at being picked as at the prospect of playing well on the big occasion."
Johnson, who sees Worsley as one of his more dependable performers when the pressure games come round, expects him to do just that. Asked whether he had sacrificed a little pace in tinkering with his back-row formation, the manager replied: "We heard all that when we picked Joe last season. What happened? He turned out to be one of our best players, if not the best."