The last acts performed by the England No 8 Jordan Crane on Heineken Cup business in Wales were an educated swing of the right boot worthy of Diego Maradona himself, followed by the biggest theatrical yawn since The Phantom of the Opera. Whatever happens in Swansea this afternoon, there can be no repeat of last season's bewildering events in Cardiff: no extra time, no confusion over the rules of engagement, no penalty shoot-out. There will be drama, though. A contest between Leicester and Ospreys, the great no-love-lost rivals of European rugby, pretty much guarantees it.
After the two sides met at the Liberty Stadium at the same stage of last season's tournament, the Ospreys coaching team openly accused Julian White, the Leicester prop, of gouging. As it turned out, the wrong man had been fingered, so to speak. "I thought it was pretty cheap of them, if I'm honest," says Crane a year on. "How can you just sit there and come out with things about someone with no evidence to back up your allegations?
"Not that I think anyone will be going out to settle old scores. It's gone now: we've played them once already this season and it went off without trouble. And anyway, everyone involved this weekend has enough to think about without worrying about what happened last year. For both sides, qualification for the knockout stage depends on victory in this game. We're a big club, they're a big club; we have good players, they have an amazingly strong squad; they took a hiding from Clermont Auvergne over in France last week; we finished a bad second there back in December. We're so evenly matched, it isn't true."
Crane's contribution to the Leicester cause towards the end of last term was almost too good to be true. He scored the winning try in the Guinness Premiership showpiece at Twickenham, a mere fortnight after nailing the winning kick in the first and last football-style shoot-out of its kind – a kick that edged Leicester past Cardiff Blues and into a fifth Heineken Cup final, which they would lose narrowly to Leinster. Reminiscing at eight months' distance, he says he was always confident of hitting the spot. Some of the more panic-stricken participants, most notably the Blues' outstanding international flanker Martyn Williams, would have struggled to hit a barn door with a bulldozer. The young man from the West Midlands could have threaded a needle with his eyes shut, so steady was his nerve. Hence the yawn.
"It was an odd thing all round," he recalls. "When we reached the end of extra time we were in a strange place, partly because we'd been miles in front and couldn't work out how we'd ended up drawing and partly because everyone thought we'd be playing on under some sort of 'golden point' arrangement. We were pretty surprised when the reality dawned on us. It wasn't a nice situation, and it must have been a particularly desperate way to lose a semi-final. But it wasn't us who lost. Winning under those unique circumstances was a massive high and I have only good memories.
"When Johne Murphy missed his kick and gave them a shot to win it, we thought it was dead and gone, to the extent that we started talking among ourselves about taking it out on Bath the following week. Then the Cardiff guy fluffed it and pretty soon, it was down to me. The rules have changed now. Would I be among our nominated kickers under the new system? I doubt it. I'd like to be, because I'd back myself any time, but if I have to retire from kicking with a 100 per cent record, I'll live with it."
Having been a distinctly useful footballer in his early teens – good enough to attract the interest of West Bromwich Albion – the shoot-out scenario suited him better than all his colleagues and rivals, leaving aside the specialist goal-kickers. Had he not been tempted to stick with football and earn himself some real money? Crane shakes his head.
"I've seen enough of what happens to young footballers to know that I made the right call," he says. "My brother was also at West Brom; in fact, he had a proper contract with them, but it didn't work out. These days, he plays for Solihull. When you're in one of those academies, you think you're the best thing in the world. Then you find yourself being chewed up, spat out and earning 100 quid a week in a corner of the lower leagues somewhere. You have to decide when to stop fighting for it, don't you? I made my decision to play rugby early and I haven't regretted it for a second."
Once he had committed himself to the union game, things moved quickly. He spent time at Colston's School in Bristol, then the most successful seat of rugby learning in the country, and whizzed his way through the England age-group sides. He was regarded as something of a prodigy: like Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Cipriani, he was being spoken of by the top coaches in the land long before he started shaving. Even though Bath rejected him – "They told me I was too small for a second-row forward and too slow to play in the back row, which was nice to hear" – he quickly surfaced at Leeds, playing his way into the first-team pack at 18.
Leeds were relegated in 2006, which meant there were decisions to be made. "There was a release clause built into my contract," he says. "I don't think it was meant to be there, but it was. I found it hard, leaving the club that had shown faith in me and given me such support and opportunity, and after agreeing to join Leicester I had a real pang of conscience and almost went back on it. But in the end, I stuck with it. It turned out to be a good move.
"When you're on the outside, you're not too sure about Leicester. You hear all this stuff about the traditions of the club, about the way things are done there, and you find yourself wondering how easy it will be to fit in. It took me a while to settle, to come to terms with the value system and reach a full understanding of what they wanted from me. At Leeds I'd been playing regular first-team rugby in a relegation battle, so I thought I knew what was what. I went from that to living off scraps of rugby, getting a game here and there. We reached three finals that first season and I wasn't selected for any of them, which hurt. It was the most difficult period of my career so far. But I was among the replacements when we beat Munster at Thomond Park, and that was such an unbelievable experience I knew I wanted more."
He feels the same way about international rugby. With the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter out of circulation through injury, Crane was given his head at England level last autumn. The Leicester-dominated national hierarchy rather fancied his brand of aggressive, heavy-duty work at close quarters: if he was not a weapons-grade attacking force like Sergio Parisse of Italy or Argentina's Juan Fernandez Lobbe, he was a useful hunk of hired muscle all the same. They changed their minds after the opening game against the Wallabies.
"To be dropped after that one match was frustrating, disappointing," Crane admits. "OK, I didn't set the world alight against Australia, but I felt I did the things I was there to do. Having had the excitement of a first Test start, being left out rocked me back a bit. You have to take it on the chin, I suppose." He returned to Leicester in a pit of despond, only to have his enthusiasm rekindled by the head coach, Richard Cockerill, who, during his own Test days under Clive Woodward, suffered all the knock-backs he could handle.
"Leicester were great in the way they looked after me," he continues. "Richard said: 'If you don't fancy the match this weekend, let us know. We'll understand. But we think it'll be better for you if you get stuck straight back in.' He was right. At that moment, I needed to know I was wanted by someone, somewhere. It reinforced what I already knew: that there are big highs and deep lows in this game, and the test of a player is how he deals with both. I'm in the Six Nations squad, and if I get the chance, I'll prove I've handled what happened last autumn in the right way."
England hopefuls: Crane's rivals at No 8
Nick Easter (Harlequins)
The front-runner since 2007, when Brian Ashton fast-tracked him into the side, Easter has plenty of skill for a big man, along with lashings of self-confidence.
James Haskell (Stade Français)
Hardly the world's best as a footballing back-rower, Haskell is more a force of nature type with a strong running game off the scrum base. Hugely energetic.
Dan Ward-Smith (Wasps)
The New Zealand-born forward would have played at the last World Cup, but for a dislocated kneecap. Armed with a big driving game and close to full throttle once again.
Luke Narraway (Gloucester)
Easily the most skilful of the candidates, but also the most lightweight, which does him no favours in Martin Johnson's eyes. Sadly, he must be considered an outsider.Reuse content