Sampson part of the union again

Young flier wings back to Wasps to make his pace pay
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The Independent Online

The switchback career of Paul Sampson is ample evidence, if more is needed, of the great changes that have swept British rugby. It used to be that a union man "going north" could rip up his metaphorical passport, he would never be welcomed back.

The switchback career of Paul Sampson is ample evidence, if more is needed, of the great changes that have swept British rugby. It used to be that a union man "going north" could rip up his metaphorical passport, he would never be welcomed back.

Not any more. At the tender age of 23, Sampson has, uniquely for a domestic player in the open era, gone from professional rugby union to rugby league and back again, rejoining Wasps last weekend from the Wakefield Wildcats.

A one-man sporting trivia quiz - he won the England Schools 100 metres title and was called up to England's Five Nations' Championship squad while studying for his A-levels - Sampson defies easy analysis.

He was born and bred in Wakefield, to a family steeped in rugby league, but when we met at Wasps' training ground this week, he scoffed at past suggestions that he joined the Wildcats last December because of homesickness. "I had been in London for three and a half years," Sampson said. "That's a long time to start getting homesick. The truth is that I had always wanted to play rugby league at some point.

"My cousin Dean has been at Castleford a long time, his father played the game too, and I would watch Super League on the TV every Friday and Sunday, enjoying the spectacle of it all. I made the move to league without knowing how long it would be before I came back. I wanted the exposure. I wanted to show rugby league what I could do, given the opportunities that, say, Anthony Sullivan gets, whereby a winger is given space and can finish."

A debut at Castleford on Boxing Day left Sampson "out on my feet", the first indication that his fitness would have to adapt to the different requirements of the 13-man game. His searing pace was not in doubt - his 10.4sec to win the England Schools 100m in 1996 ranked him among the top 20 senior sprinters in Britain, and he feels he could go faster now with the right training.

But his dreams of exploiting rugby league's wide open spaces were to be largely unfulfilled. Sampson arrived as one of nine new signings, filling a vacancy originally intended for Jonah Lomu no less, but the team underperformed as it gradually became clear that inflated contracts for the likes of Steve Prescott and Bobbie Goulding could not be sustained.

The Wildcats are likely this week to enter into a corporate voluntary agreement, but it was the temporary stopping of wages halfway through the Super League season that first alerted Sampson to the need to think again. "I would have liked to have had more than one year in league," he said. "The Wakefield fans were wonderful, and they got a glimpse of what I could do two or three times, but not as often as either they or I would have liked."

Sampson left as the Wildcats' top try scorer with eight, not the 15 or 20 he had hoped for, able to re-sign for Wasps because of a knee injury to the full-back Jon Ufton which gave the director of rugby Nigel Melville the necessary leeway within the squad cap.

Sampson is re-tracing his steps in more ways than one. He has had long runs in the Wasps first team before, but this afternoon he will be on the bench against Bristol. Like Wakefield, Wasps do not have to seek their troubles, and Melville urgently needs a Premiership win after opening defeats at home to Leicester and Bath.

"It was a case of itchy feet with Paul last year," said Melville. "As it happens, it has worked out well. Pace is king in sport, and Paul has phenomenal speed, but he has also been able to work on his defence. Full-back and wing are no longer separate positions in union, and he will challenge our established back three, Josh Lewsey, Kenny Logan and Shane Roiser. In the longer term he is capable of pushing again for an England place."

Ah yes, England. A subject that might make Sampson come over all wistful, except he is not the type. In the summer of 1998 he became the 15th player in three seasons to be capped from Wasps, but it could not have been in less propitious circumstances. Sampson was enjoying the traditional benefits of the close season when he was called out to join the tour of the southern hemisphere.

Unaware that he was even on stand-by, he was short of full fitness and the squad he joined were short on morale after a76-0 beating in Australia and two Test defeats in New Zealand. None of which was about to make Sampson refuse Clive Woodward's offer of a cap against South Africa, but England lost 18-0 at Newlands, with the new boy on the wing bogged down in three inches of Cape Town mud. Then he broke a leg falling off a Cape Town wall, and he has not heard from Woodward since.

"That is probably just Clive's style," said Sampson. "I do not have a problem with it. The time that I want feedback from him is when I am playing well enough for Wasps again to start thinking about England A or England caps. Clive once picked me at fly-half for England Under-21. He knows all about me."

Nine days ago Sampson was at Headingley as Wakefield continued their Super League struggles. Twenty-four hours later he was being driven back to London by his pal, Martyn Wood, Wasps' Yorkshire-born scrum-half. "It is all a bit surreal," Sampson admitted, "but I'm glad to be back. Rugby league has done me a great amount of good, particularly in terms of fitness, and hopefully helped towards what is still my great ambition, to play for England at Twickenham."

The same Twickenham that, next month, will play host to the first match of the Rugby League World Cup. It is indeed an ever-changing world, but just now Paul Sampson would settle for some stability in his sporting odyssey.