The future is black: The dynamic trio leading a revolution for England

They're young, gifted – and backs. But the 'Black Three' are in for a tough test against Australia today. Chris Hewett speaks to Delon Armitage, star of the dynamic trio that is leading a revolution for England in more ways than one
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The Independent Online

If Delon Armitage – born in Trinidad, raised in London and freed from his rugby shackles on the French Riviera – has an eye for a gap, as he demonstrated more than once during a memorable international debut at Twickenham a week ago, he also has the ability to spot a man-trap from a mile away. Drawn into conversation about the recent embarrassing capitulation of England's cricketers to the Stanford Superstars, the new red-rose full-back expressed his disappointment at the failure of Kevin Pietersen's side to give his fellow West Indians a game. Immediately, the questioning intensified. It was a "Tebbit Test" moment, pure and simple.

Armitage saw the way things were going and, with a hint of the body swerve that would flummox the tough-tackling hard men of the Pacific Islands a few days later, left his interrogators for dead. Pressed on whether he supported West Indies cricket over the true-blue MCC version, he offered some suitably vague thoughts about wanting the England team to be the best they could be and sprinted off towards another subject.



He has barely stopped sprinting since. His first-cap performance alongside the two wings, Paul Sackey and Ugo Monye, was not quite error-free, but he did so many good things in the full 80 minutes generously granted him by the manager, Martin Johnson, that there was not even the hint of a possibility that he might be ditched for this afternoon's rather more challenging meeting with the Wallabies. And if the back-three axis of Armitage, Sackey and Monye – the "Black Three", as they call themselves – survives intact against the sorcery of Matt Giteau, the overt physicality of Stirling Mortlock and the straight-line speed of Drew Mitchell, much will be said and written about their value as role models.



England's rugby team has had black role models before. Chris Oti was playing on the wing as far back as 1988; Jeremy Guscott was the best-known player in the team for the best part of a decade after winning his first cap in '89; the three Nigerian "brothers", as they were colloquially known at Bath – the wing Adedayo Adebayo, the prop Victor Ubogu and the flanker Steve Ojomoh – won more than 40 caps between them during the Nineties, although they never appeared as a threesome in a Test match.



It is also true to say that more black youngsters see professional rugby as a viable career option now than ever before. "The Rugby Football Union has done a good job in casting the net wider," said Toby Booth, the London Irish coach who played an influential role in nurturing Armitage's talent after spotting him as a teenage player at neighbouring Richmond. "There are only so many football contracts to go round, aren't there? There are growing numbers of ambitious, athletically gifted black players beginning to make their way in our sport, and that's an encouraging sign."



Even so, Armitage, who hails from San Fernando and is the first native West Indian to play for England, seems that little bit different. (Sackey, whose parents are from Ghana, and Monye, whose family is Nigerian, were born in Westminster and Islington respectively). Does he feel different? "Not at all," he said this week. "When it comes to playing for England, it's all about earning the respect of your colleagues – and that goes for any newcomer to the squad, not just me. I feel I belong here this week more strongly than I did last week, but that's because I've played a game and have more confidence to draw on.



"When any young black kid sees someone like Jason Robinson wearing the shirt at international level and performing brilliantly, he dreams of getting there himself. I know I did. But when I suddenly found myself in the starting line-up, playing in the position Jason played, I think my emotions were the same as any other newcomer appearing in his first Test. If I was all over the place emotionally, it was because the obvious questions – 'Am I ready? Should I really be here?' – were going through my mind. I guess every player experiences that when he's travelling to the stadium for his first match."



Those most closely acquainted with the 24-year-old say it is his rugby background that makes him unusual, not his family one. His stepfather, working at the time in information technology, took a job in France, and Delon found himself moving through the junior ranks at the Racing Club in Nice. Good enough to win a place in the national Under-16 squad, he might have stayed put had he not been rejected as "too small and too skinny". It was a painful moment, but he had been enriched nevertheless.



"What set Delon apart? The French dimension to his game, without a doubt," said Booth. "He was a wonderfully long-limbed, fluid runner – deceptively quick in an effortless kind of way and a wonderful picker of attacking lines. There was a freedom about him, a touch of the Serge Blancos. We were just setting up the academy at London Irish and he was the first player on our list."



Booth played an influential role in nurturing Armitage. "Delon and Nick Kennedy [the second of the London Irish players to make an England debut last weekend] were ahead of the game, and we drafted them in for sessions with the senior squad at a very early stage. They were the first to cross the bridge, so to speak. When did I realise Delon really had the X-factor? Now, there's a story. I can tell you exactly when I realised.



"Brendan Venter was our player-coach at the time, and he prided himself on his defensive skills, like every South African. Delon was playing opposite him in training, with Mark Mapletoft at outside-half, and when he received the ball, he ran such a beautiful line that he scored under the posts without Brendan laying a glove on him. Brendan ranted and raved, and shouted: 'Let's do it again.' Delon ran a different line, with the same result.



"By now, Brendan was in a full-blown rage and demanded another go. This time, Delon told Mark to throw a miss-pass. The ball went across him to the outside backs, who duly scored another try. Delon, meanwhile, was sat on his arse, spitting blood through his gumshield. Brendan had finally caught up with him – it was bound to happen, by hook or by crook. But Delon had been brave enough and clever enough to do the right thing by his colleagues. That told me most of what I needed to know." International rugby being as demanding as it is, Johnson and the rest of the England back-room staff can be forgiven for feeling they need to know a little more.



Armitage looked the part at Twickenham last weekend, pinching awkward high balls from under the noses of the ultra-substantial South Seas chasers and picking the geometer's attacking lines that had so impressed Booth. But as Mike Ford, the national team's defence specialist, said on Thursday, there were times against the Pacific Islanders when "we found ourselves without a full-back", adding: "If we're too keen to move upfield and get amongst the opposition against Australia, we'll be punished. The Wallabies are just the kind of smart, aware rugby players to take advantage of any over-enthusiasm."



"I can see how this will be a more difficult match for me," Armitage admitted. "There will be more tests all over the park than there were last week, and as bits of my game weren't good enough then, I've been doing plenty of extras in training. It will be particularly challenging with Giteau on the field, because he has every kicking option in the book available to him. I knew all about him long before I found myself involved at this level. It's all there in his locker, isn't it?" Especially those dinky little reverse-angled chips off the outside of his boot. How might he read those? "I'm not sure it's possible to read them," he replied. "I'll just pray that we're all looking after each other in the back three, and that Paul and Ugo will be there to help me out."



By his own admission, Armitage was a nervous wreck before his debut. He almost overdosed on energy drinks because he could not contemplate eating before the game. Will he change his routine for the better this time? "I think I'll have some breakfast on this occasion, but other than that, I won't alter a thing," he said. "I'll just be desperate for that first touch. When that first high ball went up last week and I took it clean, I thought: 'Boom! This is it. I'm out here playing'. That's what I want to feel this weekend. Who knows how many of these opportunities will come my way?"



According to the most recent available evidence, he will get plenty of opportunities. In the professional era, England have had more full-backs than Brian Lara scored big hundreds, but only three stand out: Matt Perry, who was blessed with the deepest understanding of the role, as well as the best defence; Iain Balshaw, who could run like a dream; and Robinson, a natural left-wing playing out of position whose footwork left opponents around the world bewitched, bothered and bewildered.



No one would accuse Armitage of being another Robinson. There won't be another Robinson. But there were signs last week that he might bring a Perry-Balshaw mix to England's problem position. If that proves to be the case, he will be worth his weight in gold.



Paul Sackey Right-wing (29)

*Born Westminster, London

Height 6ft 1in Weight 14st 7lbs

School The John Fisher School, Purley, Surrey

*Club Career

1999-2000 Bedford Blues

(40 points/16 appearances)

2000-05 London Irish (215 pts/121 app)

2005- London Wasps (220 pts/89 app)

*16 England caps 10 tries



Delon Armitage (24) Full-back

*Born Trinidad, West Indies

Height 6ft 1in Weight 13st 5lbs

Was selected for France Under-16s while playing for Racing Rugby Club de Nice, before moving to Richmond. First West-Indian born player to play for England.

*Club Career

2002- London Irish (205 pts/109 app)

*1 England cap



Ugo Monye (25) Left-wing

*Born Islington, London

Height 6ft 2in Weight 14st 3lbs

School Lord Wansworth College,

South Warnborough, Hampshire.

Attended same college as Jonny Wilkinson and Peter Richards.

*Club Career

2002- Harlequins (225 pts/92 app)

*1 England cap

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