Sanderson left to gnash his teeth in a darkened corner of rats' alley

The England back row has been playing under the severest pressure for both country and club. But, as he tells Chris Hewett, tough times only make him pay more attention to detail
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The Independent Online

Victories are rarer than radium, confidence levels are subterraneanly low, anxiety is so acute that a phone call to the Samaritans may soon be the only option - the number will be engaged, naturally - and the pressure is enveloping the squad like a shroud. England? Right in one. But not England alone. Worcester, down among the dead men at the foot of the Guinness Premiership table after an utterly fruitless campaign to date, also find themselves in a dark and lonely corner at the wrong end of rats' alley. Pat Sanderson plays for both teams, the poor soul. He has experienced better times.

Sanderson raised his brow and rolled his eyes at the first mention of the prevailing circumstances at Sixways, where he earns 80 per cent of his money and spends 90 per cent of his time. Last week, his club colleagues played a must-win match at Harlequins and lost, thereby conceding precious ground to a side widely viewed as rival relegation candidates. Tomorrow, they travel to Saracens, who are beginning to string some performances together. By close of play this weekend, they could be telescopically distant as the 12th team in a 12-team league.

"Let's be honest: it's been a tough old month," he admitted this week, no more than 24 hours after receiving the news that Anthony Eddy, the head coach at Worcester, had been given the heave-ho. Tough indeed. Ever since the All Blacks gave England a hiding of record proportions in the first of the autumn international fixtures, and especially since the defeat by Argentina six days later, the talk around the red rose camp had been of Andy Robinson fighting to save his job. Even when the ailing world champions earned themselves a smidgen of breathing space by beating the Springboks in the tightest of tight games, there was little relief for Sanderson. A sacking at Premiership level preys on the emotions every bit as much as one at the top end of Test rugby, especially when those emotions belong to the club captain.

"I've been with England since the end of October - all my effort and energy has gone into making something of this series of international matches," he said. "But it's bound to be the case that the things happening at your club have an impact. It's impossible not to think about it, to concern yourself with it. I love Worcester. It's my sporting family, my friends play there and I'm passionately interested in everything that goes on. Have I been in regular touch? Of course I have. I speak to people all the time, because it's part and parcel of caring about the place. There again, I have to do my bit with England, which is also very important to me. When all is said and done, it has to be one thing at a time. This is where I am right now, so this is where my concentration is focused."

This time last year, Sanderson must have considered himself one of the chosen ones. He had performed particularly well in the opening tranche of Premiership matches, only one of which Worcester had lost, and played his way into the England back row for the games with Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. He emerged from those little tête-à-têtes with his reputation at a career high, but a series of back spasms - maybe related to an old prolapsed disc, maybe not - denied him the opportunity to build on his success in the Six Nations Championship.

By the time he regained full fitness, England were in pieces and the vast majority of the back-room staff had been sent their P45s. He led a shadow Test side to Australia in June and caught two wallopings from the Wallabies. Since then, it has been downhill all the way.

Until, it might be argued, last weekend, when England sneaked home against the South Africans. Even then, Sanderson could have been forgiven for feeling just a little deflated, given that he was summoned from the field after an hour with the Boks 21-13 ahead and looking sure-fire winners. (The match turned deep in the final quarter, with the Worcester man twiddling his thumbs on the bench). Yet there were signs that the back row, initially betrayed by a selectorial caprice that resulted in the three senior loose forwards - Sanderson, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry - performing the wrong roles, might finish the series in credit. Certainly, there was more balance to the unit with Sanderson on the open-side flank and Corry at No 8.

"Pat has been getting a few questions asked about him," acknowledged John Wells, the England forwards coach and a former flanker of repute. "I know it, so does he. But last Saturday, he gave us the opportunity to play some football. He has good hands, good vision, he puts people into space. We've got some things right in the back row over the last three games, but it has been spasmodic. What we need to see, starting in this second Test against the Boks, is more consistency."

For his own part, Sanderson argues with some vehemence that he is as happy at No 8 as he is on the flank. "Do you really have to ask me the question?" he sighed, with an extravagantly theatrical mix of weariness and exasperation. "As I'm sick and bloody tired of telling people, I really don't care where I'm picked. What I do care about is winning, and we won last weekend. Yes, it was a grind, but if we have to grind out 20 victories, that's what we'll do. I'm not ashamed to say so, either. What is there to be ashamed about in doing what it takes to get a result? This is a team of highly professional, extremely dedicated sportsmen - people who aren't used to losing and hate it when it happens. Defeat is very hard to take at the best of times. When it keeps occurring, it hurts more than I can say. Clearly, we would have preferred to win last week's game playing some attractive rugby. But if attrition is the best way to win a particular match, attrition it has to be."

As Sanderson spent last June as England's captain - Corry, much to his disgust, was given the entire summer off without the option - there is now a widespread assumption that the rivalry between the two players outweighs the camaraderie, especially as the former was chosen at No 8, Corry's regular position, for the opening two November fixtures. This is not the case, apparently. "One of the things I've most enjoyed about my involvement with England over the last couple of seasons has been playing with Martin," he said. "I set a lot of store by our relationship, which I think is exceptionally strong."

Even so, it is the kind of thing that sets tongues wagging among the rugby public, just as Lawrence Dallaglio's presence in the England squad during last season's Six Nations rapidly became an issue that gorged upon its own flesh for the entire seven weeks of the tournament. This surely adds to the pressure in Test week, a pressure the world champions could well do without in their present parlous state.

"I know we players say this all the time these days," Sanderson replied, "but there is no greater pressure than the pressure we put on ourselves. It's the truth. Does it affect me, all this weight of expectation? Yes, and so it should. To my mind, my job as an international sportsman representing this country is to react positively in the most demanding situations, to control myself more effectively the more difficult the circumstances become. That's the whole point of playing at this level. Some people handle the pressure well, others find it more difficult. It's a very personal thing. I think I'm one of the lucky ones because I react to heavy pressure by paying even greater attention to detail, which is where matches are won and lost."

He openly admits that "one win is not enough" - a clear indication that he believes England will do themselves a very serious mischief indeed if they fail to build today on the two-point victory they achieved last weekend. However, Sanderson is as confident as any current red-rose player can be that things will turn out for the best this afternoon, not least because the experiences of recent weeks and months have drawn the camp closer together.

"We're a tighter unit than we were before, better friends than ever," he said. "That's what adversity does for a team. And we'll need to be close and committed against these South Africans, because they're in the place we were last weekend. They need a win, and they'll be prepared to fight for it. I do think, though, that we turned a corner in the first Test by coming from behind in the way we did. In rugby, as in life, very little happens for you if you don't believe it will happen. We believed last week, and we made it through. It should mark the start of something good for us."

An optimistic Sanderson, then, despite the two-pronged assault on his spirit from club and country? "You already know the answer," he replied. "Work is only work when you'd rather be somewhere else, and believe me, there's nowhere I'd rather be than playing rugby in front of 82,000 people at Twickenham."

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