Sheridan steps into front line for charge of the heavy brigade

Sale's born-again prop, a colossus even among giants, tells Chris Hewett why he relishes shouldering a huge responsibility
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The Independent Online

There have been big forwards, like the Fijian front-rower Joe Veitayaki, who always took the field looking as though he had just swallowed a sofa. There have been strong forwards, like the great All Black Colin Meads, who was rumoured to train by jogging up and down the hills of his farm in King Country with a sheep under each arm. Now, in the early years of the techno-driven 21st century, rugby is in the process of discovering something new, and it comes in the unusual - not to say extraordinary - shape of Andy Sheridan, a prop forward from Bromley who could, if roused, scrummage the whole of Bromley into oblivion.

There have been big forwards, like the Fijian front-rower Joe Veitayaki, who always took the field looking as though he had just swallowed a sofa. There have been strong forwards, like the great All Black Colin Meads, who was rumoured to train by jogging up and down the hills of his farm in King Country with a sheep under each arm. Now, in the early years of the techno-driven 21st century, rugby is in the process of discovering something new, and it comes in the unusual - not to say extraordinary - shape of Andy Sheridan, a prop forward from Bromley who could, if roused, scrummage the whole of Bromley into oblivion.

Powerful men have been heard to squeal when Sheridan takes hold of them at the set piece; muscle-bound gym freaks blanch when they see him at work on the weights. According to Charlie Hodgson, the England outside-half and a club colleague at Sale, the 26-year-old prop can send well over 230kg (36st) into orbit, which puts him in international class as a bench-presser. According to Julian White, who partners him in the front row against the New Zealand Maori today, he is abnormally strong. And White is not one of life's Sebastian Flytes.

By picking Sheridan and White alongside the equally ample Northampton hooker Steve Thompson, the Lions coaches have pieced together the largest front row in red-shirted history. It is just conceivable that the Springboks have challenged their combined weight of almost 55st - some say the mountainous Free Stater Os du Randt accounted for almost half that poundage on his own when he was eating for South Africa as well as playing for them - but in the general run of things, today's unit is as considerable as considerable gets.

"I've never played against Andrew," said White yesterday, with just a suggestion of relief in his eyes. "I've played with him, though. When I was at Bristol he was behind me in the second row, and yes, he's a very strong bloke. That natural strength of his has helped him settle into the propping role more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. You have to learn your trade in the front row and sometimes, he's not in the right place at the right time. Theoretically, that should put him in difficulties, because it's a technical position. Not Andrew. It's his strength that gets him through."

Sheridan has spent a good deal of time in the back five of the scrummage, mostly as a lock - England picked him in that position for their tour of South Africa in 2000, although he failed to win a cap - and occasionally as a blind-side flanker. Every coach who ever worked with him appreciated his destructive qualities with ball in hand, but positionally, he was something of a nightmare: too big and cumbersome to be of much use at the line-out, a tad too slow to cut it in the dynamic world of the loose forward. Hence his slow but inexorable move towards the sharp end, where men are men and ears are so heavily cauliflowered they might have been grown by Alan Titchmarsh.

"I suppose I have to thank Peter Thorburn, my coach at Bristol, for putting me in this position, because he was the one who gave me my chance at prop," Sheridan said yesterday, on the eve of the most significant match of his career; a match so significant, indeed, that it could be the making of him, for ever and a day.

"I'd also single out Philippe Saint-André [his current club coach at Sale] because of his approach to front-row play and the way he has encouraged me to play my natural game. Philippe likes his props. His best friend is a prop" - a reference to the fearsome Laurent Seigne, alongside whom Saint-André played in the French national team and coached at Gloucester and Bourgoin - "and sometimes, I think he would have preferred to have been a prop than a wing. He loves scrums, does Philippe. There are occasions when you wonder whether he's interested in anything else."

With only a single England cap to his name, and that as a replacement in the soft game against Canada at Twickenham seven months ago, Sheridan might be forgiven for wondering whether he genuinely belongs in Lions company, which is, after all, supposed to represent the crème de la crème of British and Irish rugby. The Lions have chosen inexperienced players before - Derek Quinnell had yet to play for Wales when Carwyn James picked him for the 1971 tour of New Zealand; Elgan Rees travelled to the same country as an uncapped wing six years later; Will Greenwood was taken sight unseen to South Africa in 1997 - but front-rowers are meant to be different. These, of all people, are expected to have proved their mettle in the fires of the furnace, preferably over a period of years. With the best will in the world, Sheridan cannot be said to have earned his spurs in the traditional fashion.

He does not wonder, though. In fact, he is confidence made flesh, as someone boasting his combination of scale and power has every right to be. There is no suggestion of swagger about him - asked whether the Maori might put too much pace on the game for a man of his particular avoirdupois specification, he replied: "We're about to find out, aren't we? If I'm there with my hands on my knees, blowing like hell after 20 minutes, everyone will know the answer to that question." He is not, however, anyone's idea of a shrinking violet, despite the softness of his tone and the politeness of his manner.

"I feel at home as a prop," he said. "I know I haven't played as much of my rugby in the position as some other people, but I don't feel out of place. When was the last time I was caught out technically? I honestly can't remember. I've been in against some good people - the two South Africans playing in the Premiership back home, Marius Hurter and Cobus Visagie, obviously know their stuff - but I'm enjoying working my way up the ladder and I consider the last couple of years to have been very successful."

Did he consider his late contribution against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua a week ago to have been a high point? After all, he reduced the local scrum to a splatter of blood and a flurry of feathers when he was unleashed from the bench a quarter of an hour from the end of normal time.

"It went all right, I think. It's not for me to say. There is a lot of talk about this and that, but all I'm interested in is proving myself to my colleagues. Clive Woodward said everyone would get a chance to show themselves, and I have my opportunity in this game with the Maori. There's not much more to report, really."

All things considered, Sheridan is a one-off who enjoys doing things his way. He has one eye on life after rugby - he spent a year training to be a plumber, and is now enthusiastically involved in a bricklaying course - but the other on a long and fulfilling career as an international prop.

He has a reputation among his peers of being unusually reluctant to play injured, and that may jar with some ancient members of the front-row bestiary: the likes of Robin Cowling, who once played the vast majority of a match against the French with a broken collar-bone. There again, Iain Balshaw, the Leeds full-back, risked his dodgy hamstring in the Powergen Cup final and saw his place on this tour disappear as a result. Sheridan may be a prop, but he is no mug.

"What do I like best about playing in the front row? I don't see it as anything too profound," he said. "I love it when things are right and you're going forward in those scrums. When you're not going forwards - when you're getting smashed backwards - it's the worst feeling in the world."

Precious few people in New Zealand expect Sheridan and company to experience the worst of life today. Rather, they fear for the well-being of their own. No one saw Sheridan coming in the build-up to this tour, even though he is hard to miss in a crowd. Now he is here, the most knowledgeable rugby folk on earth are no longer wondering whether he will make an impact, but how big the impact will be.

Sum of the parts: How the Lions' largest front row weighs in

Julian White (Leicester)

Height: 1.85m (6ft 1in)

Weight: 115kg (18st)

Collar size: 22in

Favourite food: Pasta, pasta and more pasta

Steve Thompson (Northampton)

Height: 1.88m (6ft 2in)

Weight: 115kg (18st)

Collar size: 22 in

Favourite food: Protein shakes

Andrew Sheridan (Sale)

Height: 1.96m (6ft 5in)

Weight: 125kg (19st 7lb)

Collar Size: 21 in

Favourite food: Steak and mash

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