Pountney and the forgotten F word

When the flak is flying and the tackles are thumping, Northampton's back-row dynamo will still be smiling
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The Independent Online

Northampton are the only club in England advancing on three fronts, the national cup, the European Cup and the Premiership, and the battle scars are beginning to show.

Even the seemingly indestructible Matt Dawson has become a casualty, a sure sign that the campaign is taking its toll. One man, however, has been impervious to the flak flying all around him. Budge Pountney seems to be striding through no-man's-land beneath a halo.

"This is totally exciting," he enthused. A couple of weeks ago the flanker stood out in an outstanding team performance as Scotland scuppered England's Grand Slam hopes in an heroic action at Murrayfield; last Saturday he was in the front line again, scoring an impressive try from 25 yards in the Saints' dogged victory over London Irish in the semi-finals of the Tetley's Bitter Cup at the Madejski Stadium in Reading.

And now it's once more unto the breach. Today Pountney is back home, facing Lawrence Dallaglio and his company of Wasps in a quarter-final of the Heineken European Cup; and the two sides, of course, meet again in the final of the Tetley's Bitter Cup next month.

"It'll be good fun," Pountney said. "It always is, we always have a giggle. I love it."

Fun? A giggle? You begin to suspect Pountney is suffering from shell shock until you realise that, in his refreshingly Corinthian way, he is being perfectly serious. "I play rugby for fun," he insists. "If I was not being paid I'd still be playing. If I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't be here. This is one of the greatest jobs in the world. I can't think of anything better. It's important to remember that."

At Murrayfield he had a stormer in a downpour; at the Madejski he had a stormer in a comparative heatwave, prompting John Steele, North-ampton's director of rugby, to describe him as "an amazing character". This is a man not only for all seasons but for all the right reasons.

Today Pountney appears on BBC Grandstand being interviewed by Jeremy Guscott. This is proof positive of his impact. You expect a highly decorated wing commander like Guscott to appear on screen, but not a broken-nosed foot-soldier from the trenches. "I'm not used to this sort of thing," he said. "It doesn't come around too often."

Anthony Charles Pountney, who was born in Southampton 26 years ago, cut his teeth at King's School, Winchester, Winchester RFC and Bedford College, where he gained a BA Honours in European Studies and Sports Studies. The latter meant dabbling in psychology and kinetics, which have clearly done him no harm.

"If the game hadn't gone professional I would have become a teacher," he said. Not a farmer like his father, who looks after 1,000 acres in Hampshire - "A very lonely life, pretty depressing" - or a furniture maker like his brother.

So, was this warrior named after the great Bedford flanker Budge Rogers? Afraid not, just an insistence at an early age in pronouncing brother as "budger".

Pountney joined Northampton seven years ago, making his senior debut at 19 against Leicester at Welford Road. "It was a bit of an eye-opener, quite scary." At Franklin's Gardens he came under the canny direction of Ian McGeechan. "He was a massive influence. He took our game completely apart and rebuilt it. After every season we would sit down and we would have something to think about and work on over the summer. He thought about things in great depth, and each time we'd go up a step. You could pop into his office for a chat. When he left it was a bit like losing your dad. Geech was looking forward to the European Cup, but when your country calls you have to go."

And McGeechan's Scotland became Pountney's, despite the fact that he had played for England Under-21s. Eligibility? His grandmother Mary was born in Jersey and, under the regulations, that gave him a choice. The Scottish jersey it was.

He made his debut against the Springboks in 1998. "The hits were harder, the action quicker and after 10 minutes I began to wonder whether I would last. It was basically mad but it was good fun."

He scored his first try for Scotland in the World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks last autumn, but really caught the eye in nullifying Neil Back, which is some task, in the Six Nations climax a fortnight ago. "We always have a good battle," Pountney said. "We are similar players, although he's a bit more skilful out wide and he's a lot more experienced. He is also better at getting himself out of tight corners. It is always good fun against him."

That was Pountney's 16th cap and his first victory over England. How in the name of the Channel Islands did Scotland manage it? "It was a combination of things. Everybody expected us to lose so there was no pressure. We were rubbished in the press but people didn't really look at the bits of decent rugby we had put together. The team had changed a lot from the season before and we were struggling for identity. Finally things clicked.

"We were also more relaxed. We didn't train as intensely. Previously we had a lot of things to work on but this time we had a day off. We went clay-pigeon shooting and jeep driving and it did us the power of good. Geech told us to play for ourselves rather than worrying about everyone else. We needed to prove we were not as bad as people were saying, but you don't need much motivation against England."

Pountney was one of six Northampton players on duty in Edinburgh, four of them in Scotland's blue. "There wasn't much leg-pulling. Dawson was brilliant. He said we thoroughly deserved it. I said, 'Sorry mate'. What more can you say?"

Dawson, the England captain and Saints scrum-half, is off his beer at the moment. He missed the Tetley's last week with a rib injury incurred against Scotland and will also miss the Heineken.

"This is going to be a tough, tough game," Pountney said. "Wasps were on fire against Bristol but we are on our home patch and the place is going to be buzzing. Apart from the second division, the club have never won anything. The supporters want it and so do we. They expect more and more. We've got to keep going."

Pountney believes the captaincy of Pat Lam has been a key factor in the Saints' march. "The atmosphere at the club has never been better. He likes to get everyone involved. We know each other very well, how we're feeling, how we're playing. It's like a family thing and it rubs off." Such intimate knowledge can be incestuous when members of the Sainthood are playing against each other. Maybe it wasn't just a coincidence that Dawson had his quietest game for England and Ben Cohen was subst-ituted early in the second half.

Last year Pountney - a certainty for Scotland's tour of New Zealand this summer - started additional work with a personal trainer, Ron Still, a former sprinter and a member of the GB toboggan team. "I'm a little quicker, stronger, and more balanced. It's all designed for the long haul. I'm feeling quite good at the moment. It's a lot of fun." There he goes again.