It is widely accepted that Charlie Sharples, the Gloucester wing, was within a gnat's crotchet of making the England squad for this year's World Cup in New Zealand – something no sympathetic rugby follower would, in retrospect, have wished on his worst enemy.
Did Sharples spend the autumn wiping beads of ice-cold sweat from his brow while thinking "phew, close shave"? Hardly. "I hear it all the time – people saying 'I bet you're glad you missed it'," he remarks. "Was I glad? Not really. Not at all, actually. I know there was some hoo-ha off the field and in hindsight it wouldn't have been great to have been involved in that, but I'd set my heart on playing in the tournament and when you fall just short after going close you feel pretty disappointed."
Sharples is unlikely to experience further disappointment on the England front when Stuart Lancaster and his colleagues in the caretaker coaching team announce their elite squad early next month. If it was a slight surprise to see the 22-year-old invited to the World Cup training camp last summer, it will be a serious shock if he is not included on the red-rose list for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. It is a striking reflection of Sharples' progress in the course of a calendar year that he has gone from rank outsider to presumed insider without starting a single international.
He is not, by his own admission, on the hottest of scoring streaks just at the moment. Last season, he ran in the best part of 20 tries across all competitions and was the talk of the Kingsholm Shed. This term? "I think I've managed four," he says with a shake of the head. "I think I'm still the top scorer at the club, which tells you something about where we are as an attacking unit. But it'll come, I'm sure. It was around this time last year that things really started to go my way. Why shouldn't it happen again?"
Sharples is not the only potential-packed wing in the country – Jonathan Joseph of London Irish, Miles Benjamin of Worcester, James Short of Saracens and the new Wasps hot-shot Christian Wade all have their supporters – but he is currently "tete de la course", as the cyclists say, and is likely to stay there long enough to give himself a decent chance of building a Test career.
He is certainly quick enough. During his time in the World Cup camp, his reward for a series of impressive performances for the second-string England Saxons as well as for Gloucester, he established himself as the fastest member of the group.
Is 4.82 seconds over 40 metres as rapid as it sounds? "I'm quite pleased with my marks," he acknowledges, "but there are a lot of variables involved and the stats don't always tell the full story. I have a bit of a rivalry here at Gloucester with Jonny May [the impressive young multi-purpose back from Swindon] – we're forever texting each other about this kind of stuff. If he runs such and such a time, I'll accuse him of doing it with a tailwind. If I record something good, he'll claim I've done it on a fast track. The only way to settle if is to get everyone together on the same day, on the same surface. Then we'll see who's boss."
Born in Hong Kong – "My father was based there for a short while when he was in the services and I just happened to pop out during that time" – Sharples spent part of his childhood in Surrey before moving to the West Country. He excelled at both rugby and athletics, ending up as a sixth-form student at St Peter's High School in Gloucester, a Roman Catholic comprehensive that takes inordinate pleasure in exploding the myth that the only truly successful union-playing schools in the country are those of the private persuasion. "I had the offer of a sports scholarship from Millfield but I didn't want to move away and didn't want to saddle my parents with the fees," he says. "Besides, I'd been playing county rugby for Gloucestershire and a lot of the friends I'd made through that were going to St Peter's. I was keen to stick with them.
"Rugby played a big part in my decision: the school had ambitions to win the Daily Mail Cup, which is a big stage for teenagers who are keen on making their way in the game, and it also had close links with the Gloucester Academy. When I was there, we won the title at Twickenham – scoring three tries in the final really helped me, I think – and I found myself in the England age-group set-up. Once you're involved at that level, you really start believing you have a chance of playing professionally. It's then that you get serious about things."
Since first appearing on the Gloucester first-team radar as a teenager during the 2007-08 season, he has scored 35 tries in 81 senior appearances – a very decent strike-rate in this day and age. Happily, there is no sign of him believing his own publicity or assuming he has it made. Quite the opposite, in fact. When talking about his successful Churchill Cup run with the Lancaster-coached Saxons last summer, he is entirely realistic. "It was one of those, wasn't it?" he says. "It was a great experience, winning the trophy and all that, but it wasn't as if we were on tour in the southern hemisphere, playing against New Zealand A or the Wallaby second team. We played Canada in the final and it was a pretty physical game, but we still put 30 points on them. You have to see these things for what they are."
Leading on from this, he accepts he has much to learn. As well as being every bit as brisk as his straight-line statistics suggest, he also has the try-scoring instinct and is as natural a finisher as any of his rivals for an England spot. But as Mark Cueto, the longest-serving of the current red-rose wide men, has been demonstrating over the last four years or so, a wing's duties without the ball – defensive communication and organisation, especially – are every bit as important as the other kind, albeit much less fun.
"That's the stuff I'm trying to take on board," Sharples says. "There aren't many kids who come into top-class rugby knowing everything, so when you have a chance to pick things up from people who have been around a long time, you grab it. You learn from your mistakes, but you also learn from watching and listening. The older guys lose some of their pace as the years go by, but they make up for it in other ways. I admire their nous. So much of what the others were doing in the World Cup camp rubbed off on me. When it was over and I went back to Gloucester, I felt I'd changed for the better.
"Having said that, you still have to perform at club level if you want to be picked for the Test squad. There were a few missing from the Gloucester team at the start of the season and while good things came out of that – there were times when I looked at our back division and realised we were young, English-qualified players from nine to 15 – we were definitely short of bodies. Suddenly, it's different. We have five fit wings, everyone wants to play and we all know that can't happen. It's becoming really competitive in training and the people who play the big games will be the ones who really thrive in that environment. I have to make sure I'm one of them, because there are some important moments coming up."
Like every young player who has tasted Test rugby – he played off the bench against Wales in the first of the World Cup warm-up games in August – Sharples wants to gorge himself without further ado. "I'd like to think last summer was the start of something, even though I didn't make it to New Zealand," he says. "But it's a new England scene now. No one really knows how things will develop." An exciting moment? Definitely. A nervous one? Yes, that too.Reuse content