Sackey signs up for new year revolution

Wasps' Ferrari winger made for the Ashton era
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The Independent Online

Paul Sackey is not accustomed to hanging around. Either the Wasps wing is buzzing along the King's Road in a Mercedes, or he has a Mini convertible to get to and from his Chelsea home. As a sideline he is a partner in a business which sources luxury cars for the wealthy.

Only when it came to an England cap was Sackey forced to be patient. In his eighth season of senior rugby he finally made it, against New Zealand and Argentina in November. "I wasn't 100 per cent committed in the past," he said. "I don't think the England coaches knew I was a threat."

They know now, thanks to a bravura display against the world-leading All Blacks and a brilliant individual try against the Pumas. And England, under the new head honcho Brian Ashton, might be reflecting that in the headlong dash to find a serviceable squad for the World Cup, they have noted down Sackey's number plate not a moment too soon.

The promotion of fresh faces like Toby Flood and Anthony Allen was but one feature of the autumn. Sackey, Chris Jones, Tom Palmer and the fourth new cap Shaun Perry all performed solidly and all have got more than a few miles on the clock - none of them will ever see 25 again - but since when was rugby a game only for tiros?

"Towards the end of last season I knew I wasn't the player I could be," Sackey said. "I had made rugby second best while I was setting up the car business." He paid for private coaching last summer with Margot Wells, who helped him shave hundredths of seconds off his sprint figures, and the odd kilo off his waistline.

It was not as if they were fine-tuning a jalopy. Sackey had scored 65 tries in 175 matches for his senior clubs Bedford, London Irish and Wasps, and has added 11 more in 13 appearances this season. He does not drop goals or play in the centre; he is a wing, pure and simple, and is neck and neck with Sale's Mark Cueto behind only Steve Hanley among the Premiership's most prolific scorers. At Bedford he inherited the No 14 shirt worn by Rory Underwood (arguably another late developer, when considering his England record).

No, the problem, as Sackey admitted, was one of application. "I am quite laid back as a bloke, and I look quite laid back on the field, and in training," he said. "They [England] thought I didn't want it enough. They understand me at Wasps [he started out in their academy, and returned from London Irish in February 2005] and when it comes to a game they know I'm fully up for it."

England eventually came to the same conclusion after taking several looks under Sackey's bonnet in sevens, Under-21 and A teams. So, three days before his 27th birthday, he faced New Zealand at Twickenham. His dad Paul (a retired city bank manager) and mum Divine missed it - with no great expectations, they had made other arrangements - but his cap and a shirt will be framed in the family home in Purley, that suburban spot made famous in Monty Python's "nudge, nudge" sketch.

Growing up in south London, Sackey's sporting hope was to play football for Crystal Palace. He had trials at Selhurst Park when Steve Coppell was the manager. How close did he get to being taken on? "You think you're in the system but you don't know till you're there. Your dreams get shattered, in a roundabout way."

At rugby's HQ, he was surprised to be eased into the Test arena by the opposition. "I was nervous in the tunnel, with the noise of the crowd, until the All Blacks did the haka... I don't know, it was quite weird, but the haka chilled me out. I was just standing there, watching them. It probably has a different effect on different people. Some people get scared, some people think 'right, I'm ready to go'."

His parents were there a week later to see the moment the Twickers boo-boys were crying out for. Sackey weaved his way 45 metres past three Argentinians to his first England try, but again there were conflicting emotions. "It was one of the happiest moments of my life but after the game I was deflated because we lost." Then he turned an ankle and Cueto's recovery from injury meant Sackey missed the two South Africa Tests.

Nevertheless he feels he got on well with the similarly attack-minded Ashton. "He took me aside and said 'Look, you've got a chance, just show 'em what you can do'. He was quite inspirational. Over the years I have learned when to kick or give it to someone else. Ideally though I want to attack all the time. That's where Brian comes from as well, I think."

Continued good form for Wasps, not least in their crucial two Heineken Cup pool matches, could see more England decorations for the Purley king.

In any event, there is always Sterling Cars to go back to. Sackey and his partner supply Mercedes and BMWs to city types and even the odd footballer from Arsenal, West Ham and Crystal Palace.

Is he able to drop any names? "I can't, client confidentiality, you know how it is. I do the top-end cars because they have got the bigger margins. With a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari the showrooms will give you more, because they can afford it."

And with a nod and a wink Sackey sped off, just possibly to help rev up England's rugby rescue in 2007.

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