Richard Haughton: A hair-raising ride to brink of European glory

The quicksilver Saracens wing was a magnificent sevens player with an eye-catching barnet. Then he got serious about 15-a-side and trying to make England take note. Chris Hewett talked to him
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Certain senior members of the Rugby Football Union were plotting to end Brian Ashton's tenure as head coach of the England team long before Richard Haughton helped propel Saracens into the last four of the Heineken Cup by bamboozling no less an opponent than Shane Williams. Haughton's combination of speed and footwork left the form wing in world rugby in the kind of knot Gordius himself might have appreciated. The Saracen's performance did, however, give Ashton's critics a handy excuse to revisit the controversy over selection policy in an effort to justify their hole-in-the-corner behaviour.

They ridiculed the coach's decisions in two positions: full-back, where Iain Balshaw played throughout the Six Nations Championship, and left wing, where Lesley "the Volcano" Vainikolo filled in for the injured David Strettle after 13 minutes of the opening fixture with Wales and somehow stayed put for the remainder of the tournament. "There must be a more reliable full-back than Balshaw," they scoffed. "And as for the extinct Volcano – please."

A couple of points here. Balshaw, who was not quite as bad for nearly as long as the massed ranks of Josh Lewsey supporters claimed, might not have played at all had his Gloucester colleague Olly Morgan been fit, or had Mathew Tait not played himself out of contention a few days before the Wales game. And if Ashton was more culpable over Vainikolo, who had done nothing to earn his shirt and did even less to retain it, the fact remains that a fit Strettle would have kept him out of the starting line-up. What is more, Vainikolo would have been dropped for the final match with Ireland had the profoundly unfortunate James Simpson-Daniel not contracted another dose of everythingitis.

All the same, Ashton might have taken a close look at Haughton, whose raw speed may or may not be a contributory factor to the gravity-defying splendour of the Premiership's most eye-catching hairdo. If the Saracens hierarchy – Alan Gaffney, Eddie Jones, Richard Graham – had a beef with the deposed coach, it was over his apparent reluctance to show his face at their training sessions or keep abreast of developments with their brightest and best, even by phone. Haughton is not the only uncapped attacking force around: Matt Banahan of Bath, Ben Foden of Sale, Miles Benjamin of Worcester, Topsy Ojo and Delon Armitage of London Irish – all give the impression of having something to offer England in the back three. It's just that right now, the former seven-a-side specialist from Surrey is playing as well as any of his rivals and better than most.

Haughton is 27 now – a good three years older than most of his growing band of admirers imagine – and he has spent the lion's share of his time balancing his Premiership career against commitments with England on the World Sevens circuit. Always quick (he was a high-class athlete over 200 metres, and sufficiently rapid over 400m to run at national meets), his God-given gifts made him a valuable weapon in the short game. Yet only now, a decade after joining Saracens at academy level, can he say that his slow-burning talents at 15-a-side are generating serious heat.

"I wouldn't have missed the sevens experience for anything," he said this week, "but there was a feeling that I had become pigeonholed – that the rest of my rugby career might pass me by. When Alan Gaffney first arrived at the club, he said: 'Right, you have a decision to make. Do you want to be a sevens player, or a 15s player?' I understood what he was getting at and I knew I'd have to do things differently if I wanted to push my rugby forward at Saracens. It wasn't too difficult a choice, because I'd covered pretty much all the ground in sevens: I'd played in a Commonwealth Games final, won the Hong Kong title, scored my hundred tries. What else was there to do, except see how far I could climb up the all-time leaderboard? I'd reached he point where I had to throw everything at the main game."

To that end, he spent last summer eating like a horse and pumping iron by the ton in an effort to add some poundage to his stick insect's frame. "I fed my face as much as I could – massive breakfasts, protein shakes by the dozen, snacks before dinner, that sort of thing – and lived in the weights room. In no time at all, I'd put on about six kilos. When I tried to run around in training, everyone fell about laughing. But it's worked, I think. I'm stronger, I'm more resilient and I spend less time injured. It had to be done, basically. When I was on the sevens circuit I could afford to play at a light weight. In 15s, lightness is counter-productive."

He will play at full-back in tomorrow's semi-final against Munster, having shifted from the wing to cover for the injured South African counter-attacker Brent Russell during the momentous last-eight victory over the Ospreys three weeks ago. He can expect to be sorely tested by Ronan O'Gara, the best kicking outside-half in the game. O'Gara has the ability to make any No 15 look fragile, or daft, or both: if he doesn't scare the pants off an opponent with a sadistically placed high ball or two, he will have him scampering from one side of the field to the other with his rolling touch-finders. Haughton has not spent a great deal of time as last line of defence, so this can be seen as a rite of passage.

"It can be an exposed position, definitely," he said. "Does it frighten me? No. But you want to catch that first big bomb of the afternoon, don't you? If you hold on to it and return it with interest, you feel good about yourself for the rest of the game. If you drop the thing, it's another story entirely." Let's say tomorrow's story is a good one. Will he fancy his chances of an England breakthrough? "It's the kind of occasion where I have to step up," he said. "If I don't, there are others that will. I'd like to think I'm closing in on the top bracket – with a new management in place, who knows? – but at a guess, I'd say people like Nick Abendanon [the Bath full-back capped in South Africa last summer] and Tait are the ones who are there or thereabouts. I have more to do."

Interestingly, Haughton ranks Tait, the Newcastle back who might have won the 2007 World Cup for England with a spectacular solo assault on the Springbok defence, alongside the unfeasibly rapid Tom Varndell of Leicester in the Premiership speedster stakes. "Mathew can take you on the inside or the outside, he's that good," said the Saracen. "Tom is extra fast. I remember facing him in the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham and giving him some space. The moment I did it, he was pretty much gone. I tap-tackled him, just, and stopped him scoring, but it was a lesson for me. I said to myself: 'I won't be doing that again in a hurry.'"

Like so many Saracens players over the last decade, Haughton hasn't always known his precise place in the great scheme of things – what was expected of him or what the future might hold. "There have been some difficult moments," he said. "At times, it seemed the club didn't really want me. Then I'd get a chance of a first-team run, turn in a decent performance, and feel wanted again. People have been critical of the lack of continuity here and those comments are probably pretty fair. But things have changed massively for the better under this current coaching team and I'm about to sign for another two years. Why wouldn't I? I'm enjoying myself."

That sense of enjoyment was plain to see during the victory over the Ospreys, after which Gaffney, as good a judge of a player as anyone operating in the Premiership, expressed bewilderment at Haughton's absence from the senior England set-up. It was one of the good days. Whatever wonders Williams, the Grand Slam hero, attempted to perform in broken field, his opposite number trumped him. By the end of an extraordinary contest, Haughton could reasonably claim to be the most dangerous runner on view.

"I wasn't expecting to come face to face with Shane," he said. "According to the teamsheet he was meant to be on the other wing and when I saw he'd switched I half wondered whether he was keeping away from Kameli Ratuvou (the intimidating Fijian occupying Saracens' left flank). Actually, I thought he played pretty well. When he beat three or four tackles with left-foot steps, I thought: 'Jeez, what a great skill to have.' But as the match unfolded, I could sense it would be one of the high points of my career. There was an intense spirit of togetherness and when Glen Jackson dropped that goal to give us a little bit of breathing space towards the end... well, it was the most fantastic feeling."

And the hair? Just explain that one before we finish. "There's nothing to explain," he said. "Did you see Nicky Little's arrangement when he was playing for Saracens? Or Tevita Vaikona's? Big hair is not an issue at this club." Quite right too. If you've got it, flaunt it. And after years of tiptoeing shyly around the edges of the professional game, Haughton is beginning to flaunt with the best of them.