Richard Wigglesworth: 'I promised I'd play my way into the Six Nations'

Richard Wigglesworth made a fine, try-scoring debut as England won in Paris. But, the Sale scrum-half tells Chris Hewett, he cannot let success go to his head, particularly with a line of talented No 9s queuing up behind
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The Independent Online

England's pug-ugly pack retained possession of the ball through 16 phases in the build-up to Richard Wigglesworth's coup de grâce try in Paris a fortnight ago – a fact that makes it worth wondering whether the Sale scrum-half's first international score was really a part of the red rose plan, or whether he inadvertently interrupted a carefully hatched plot to run down the clock while keeping the French forwards gainfully employed in a communal bout of arm-wrestling. If the latter is the case, the diminutive Wigglesworth risked the mother of all rollickings from Phil Vickery and his fellow trolls.

Either way, that particular passage of play seemed interminable. Matt Dawson, for instance, would have lost patience halfway through and said: "I know you forwards are a bit backward, but that white thing in front of your eyes is the French line. Just give the bloody thing here, so we can all get to the bar." Wigglesworth is not quite in Dawson's league when it comes to general stroppiness. Indeed, it is not unknown for him to be criticised, albeit gently, for failing to "boss" the big blokes as a Test half-back should.

"I'll not talk rubbish for the sake of talking rubbish," he said this week, when the accusation was laid before him. "I can't see it gets you anywhere, just repeating a load of mindless nonsense. I like to keep it constructive, not least because we have an extremely intelligent group of forwards who know how to boss themselves. They all talk, apart from Andrew Sheridan, and we tend to leave him be."

The two Sale players in the current starting line-up could not conceivably be more different. Sheridan, as has been well chronicled, is enormous: 6ft 4in, the best part of 20st, shovel-handed and vulnerable only to sticks of dynamite and the occasional passing insect. Wigglesworth is 5ft 9in, 13st and a perfectly coordinated, all-round sportsman, whose golf has come on in leaps and bounds since his parents converted part of their dairy farm near Blackpool into a nine-hole course.

Indeed, his skills are such that he would not look out of place in the French game. Like Frédéric Michalak, that most lavishly gifted of individuals, or the less celebrated Valentin Courrent, who played alongside Wigglesworth at Sale before being lured back across the water by Toulouse, he can do turns at both scrum-half and stand-off, and bang over the goals for good measure. He does not anticipate lining up kicks against the Scots at Murrayfield this afternoon – "I'll be pretty worried if I find myself doing that job, because it will mean we're seriously short of bodies," he said, not unreasonably, given that Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood are ahead of him in the pecking order – but it is a useful resource, even so.

All things considered, then, the 24-year-old Lancastrian covers most of the relevant bases. Why, then, did it take him so long to emerge, given that the scrum-half role became a major issue for England the moment Harry Ellis of Leicester was laid low by injury 11 months ago? Brian Ashton, the head coach, took Andy Gomarsall, Shaun Perry and Peter Richards to last autumn's World Cup in France, and despite Gomarsall's resourceful performances from the mid-point of the pool stage onwards, the position was generally considered to be a weak link in the chain. Did Ashton miss a trick?

"Those people were ahead of me at the time," Wiggles-worth replied, candidly. "I took a lot from being involved in the World Cup preparation, and when it came to an end, I promised myself I'd play my way into the squad for this Six Nations tournament and take it from there. One or two injuries have helped my cause, clearly" – both Perry and Richards have been crocked for weeks – "but that's the way it goes sometimes. I've never looked on the scrum-half position as anything other than exceptionally competitive. A couple of weeks ago, people were talking about a No 9 crisis and sniggering at me when I insisted there were a lot of good players around. Now Harry is fit again, Danny Care has been called into the England squad and Ben Foden has announced he's moving to Northampton so he can play scrum-half, the same people are saying: 'Christ, there are millions of you.'"

Ellis is still widely regarded as the most accomplished scrum-half in the country, while Care was being spoken of as an international-in-waiting long before he left Leeds for Harlequins in the summer of 2006 and now has fresh momentum, having elbowed Gomarsall aside at the Stoop. Foden has also enjoyed a high profile, despite losing out to Wigglesworth at Sale – the principal factor behind his decision to head for the East Midlands. Everyone, it seems, gets more press than England's current first-choice No 9.

"It's certainly fair to say that some players get more coverage than others," Wigglesworth acknowledged, "but as I don't actively seek it, I can't whinge when it doesn't come my way." Might he not take a leaf from the Austin Healey Guide to Self-Publicity as a means of establishing himself in the public eye? "That would certainly be one way of getting my name in the papers, but I don't think it's me. Some personalities lend themselves to the whole media thing more than others. I guess I'm one of the others."

Even so, he must have taken a good deal of satisfaction from forcing a player as hot as Foden to seek a first-team place elsewhere. "Not at all," he replied. Ben and I are good mates, and we both get on well with Sililo Martens [the former captain of Tonga who also contests the scrum-half position at Edgeley Park]. We all want to play, and as three into one won't go, I can fully understand Ben's decision. I wish he was staying at Sale, because I know how strong, quick and talented he is. But he has this desire to play scrum-half, rather than at full-back or on the wing, and I wish him every success."

Wigglesworth's own profile, such as it is, owes much to his performance in the 2006 Premiership final, when Sale gave Leicester what for in a wet-weather contest at Twickenham. He was terrific that day, making any number of sharp little breaks around the fringes and running the show behind a dominant pack. "That game meant a great deal to me," he said. "Philippe Saint-André [the former captain of France who had assumed the rugby directorship at Sale the previous season] had left me out of the semi-final side and I hadn't been too happy about it, so when I was given my chance in the final, I regarded it as an opportunity I had to take."

Directly as a result of his title-clinching efforts, he won a place in England's second-string Saxons squad for the Churchill Cup tournament in Canada. A year later, he was in the Saxons side who won the trophy by beating the New Zealand Maori and since then it has been a case of onwards and upwards. Nothing stays straightforward for long, though. Having seen off Foden, he is about to find himself arguing the toss with the 2005 Lions scrum-half Dwayne Peel, who will arrive from Llanelli Scarlets this summer.

Not that he is thinking about Peel just yet. Today, on only his second start for his country, he must find a way of neutralising the considerable threat posed by the Scotland captain, Mike Blair, who just happens to be the ante-post favourite for the 2009 Lions Test berth in South Africa. "He's been around a long time now and he knows his stuff," said Wigglesworth, who identifies one of Blair's fellow countrymen and a predecessor in the No 9 shirt, Bryan Redpath, as his single most important influence. "It will be a significant challenge, playing against an experienced international performing at the top of his game. There again, every side has a good half-back these days. Over in Paris, I was up against Morgan Parra – a 19-year-old plucked straight out of the French club game, but as confident as you like. He'll be a top player in years to come, definitely."

Parra was certainly impressive – very impressive at times. But it was Wigglesworth who prevailed, in his understated way. That last-minute try of his may have been a laborious affair – "I can't deny that the move went on a bit," he said – but when he finally made it over the line and hurled the ball into the crowd in celebration, it was the sweetest moment of his sporting life.

"When you squirm over from half a yard, it doesn't go down as the greatest try ever scored," he said, "especially when someone the size of Lesley Vainikolo is stood there looking at you and wondering why he didn't get the ball on any of the half-dozen occasions he'd screamed for it during the build-up. Still, it was a wonderful feeling, and I don't suppose I'll ever forget it. Mind you, things get put in perspective pretty quickly in this game. Six days later, I was back playing in the Premiership and losing against Worcester at home. I won't forget that in a hurry, either, because it was a seriously bad night."