When Tom Palmer made his first visit to New Zealand, as a rugby-playing student, he travelled at the back of the plane, his knees not unadjacent to his chin. Last week he flew business class, rubbing shoulders with the other XXL members of England's party to the Antipodes.
Palmer, 24 and 6ft 6in, is the junior lock-forward in a squad that includes Martin Johnson, Simon Shaw, Ben Kay and Steve Borthwick. It should have included Danny Grewcock, but the Bath second-row was dropped after his sending-off for punching Lawrence Dallaglio in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup final.
So Palmer got the late call, which meant a change of travel plans. Instead of visiting Vancouver with the England shadow squad for the inaugural Churchill Cup against Canada and the United States, he joined the big boys for the brief but heavy tour of duty that takes in the New Zealand Maori in New Plymouth tomorrow, the All Blacks in Wellington next Saturday, followed by the Wallabies in Melbourne a week later.
"There are a number of good players ahead of me and I'm probably fifth or sixth in the pecking order,'' Palmer said. "At least I've got half a chance of showing myself at this level.'' After the game against the Maori - he will probably make an appearance off the bench - he expects to join half-a-dozen players who will take a detour from New Zealand to Canada to join the Churchill Cup contingent. His goal, naturally, is to make England's World Cup squad of 30, which will be named in September, but to achieve that would require a leap of the imagination.
Nevertheless, Palmer has made huge strides in the past 14 months. This time last year, his right leg was in plaster after he had broken the fibula playing for England A against Wales at Ashton Gate. "I got tackled from behind and snap, that was it. It was a clean break, and as fractures go it was a good one to have.'' He was sounded out for the summer tour to Argentina but was not quite ready. "Instead, I had a really good pre-season last year and came back in very good shape.''
All things considered, Palmer and his club, Leeds, have enjoyed a remarkable change of fortune. They finished bottom of the Zurich Premiership last year and were saved from relegation by Rotherham's failure to pass a means test. Because of his injury, Palmer sat out the last seven matches, which Leeds lost. The vultures circled.
"If we'd gone down I'd have moved,'' Palmer said, and first in line were Leicester and Sale. But Leeds have made the most of their reprieve and Palmer is contracted to stay at Headingley, where he shares a house with the flanker James Ponton, for another two years.
"I thought we'd have another tough season down at the bottom, but it's been tremendous. We have surprised ourselves. I think we have benefited from people not knowing that much about us. That will change, but each year we're attracting better and better players.''
The experienced Duncan Hodge of Scotland is among the new recruits to join the coaching staff of Phil Davies and Jon Callard. "Phil is very good at getting the best out of people,'' Palmer said, "and he's had a huge influence on my career.''
Palmer could have qualified for a number of countries before opting for the land of his birth. He was born in Haringey, London, and spent his early years in Kenya, where his father was a field officer for Voluntary Service Overseas. When Palmer Snr became chief executive of the Citizens' Advice Bureau in Scotland, the family moved to Edinburgh. A pupil at Boroughmuir High School, Palmer played for Scotland Under-19s and Under-21s, catching the eye of Ian McGeechan.
He deferred a place at Leeds University for a year, attending Otago Boys High School and graduating to play for New Zealand Schools. "It was almost like being a professional player,'' Palmer said. "We trained every day, all the teachers were involved and there was so much interest. They took it a lot more seriously than schools rugby in Britain.
"We played against guys who were older than us, and there was a hard edge to it.'' Many moons ago, Martin Johnson, the England captain, had embarked on a similar voyage of discovery to the land of the long white cloud.
On Palmer's return, Scotland asked him to play for the A team, which would have effectively made him an honorary Scot. "At the time, the eligibility scandal was in the news, and that persuaded me to declare for England,'' Palmer said. "I had no blood connection to Scotland and my only qualification was on residency, but that was a bit dubious, because I wasn't living there at the time. I decided I'd have a much better chance of winning things with England.''
At Leeds University, where he gained a degree in physics, he was spotted by Phil Davies, and he has spent five seasons in the senior Leeds squad. This year they qualified for the Heineken Cup; Edin-burgh are among their pool opponents.
Palmer has one cap to his name, after coming on as a late replacement in England's victory over the US in San Francisco in 2001, when he was playing in National League One. He does not qualify as a one-cap wonder, if only because "I don't consider myself to be fully capped''. He added: "I'm a much better player now, but I've still got work to do.''
In between England's training, Palmer was hoping to catch up with Richie McCaw, the All Black flanker. They were team-mates at Otago High School.Reuse content