Skirving is ready to rumble in battle for England's back row

Saracens No 8 goes head to head with rival Corry

It is absolutely as you would expect. Skirving first dirtied his knees as a six-year-old at Bishop's Stortford RFC in Hertfordshire around the time that Richards was establishing himself in an England team heading towards the 1991 World Cup final. In the present, Corry is captain of his country, and for Skirving to realise his dream of international honours he has three options: be patient; move position; or barge Corry out of the way. Which is it to be, Ben?

"Obviously I want to strive and I do have an ambition to play for England," says Skirving. "The more you play in the Premiership and Heineken Cup, the more you get noticed. I'm just trying to play my game and play well, and if England comes along it's an added bonus and I'll take it as a challenge.

"If it doesn't, I'll keep learning and I've got plenty of time to push myself forward. I like to think I'm quite versatile in that I can play anywhere in the back row. But No 8 is where I want to bed down a position."

We are in the pundits' hotbed of a two-month hiatus between the autumn Tests and the Six Nations' Championship. While England's head coach, Andy Robinson, mulls over his sel-ection - he is likely to name a 30-man squad in mid to late January - he has been out of the limelight since November, when his side beat Australia and Samoa and lost narrowly to the All Blacks. Strip away the positive spin and England have a lot to do to live up to the title of world champions. But one thing Robinson seemed set on in the autumn was the identity of his skipper. If he praised Corry's leadership once he did it a million times, often as his opening reply to any general query about a match.

It is doubly intriguing since waiting in the wings is the former captain - another No 8 - Lawrence Dallaglio, who ended his self-imposed international exile on tour with the Lions last summer only to break his ankle in the first match. Robinson said last week: "Lawrence has made it clear that he wants to compete again, and if he is fit and in form, he will come into the equation." But the eminent Wasp has privately been critical of the England coaching staff, and rugby's grapevine is of the broadband variety. It will have got back to Robinson, and the question is whether he is in the mood to go back to Dallaglio or take a step into the future with Skirving. Dallaglio is 33, Corry 32; Skirving will be 23 next Monday.

At a benefit lunch for Leicester's Will Johnson before Christmas, attended by Corry and five recent England captains, Dallaglio made an almost plaintive plea for his place. "England need to have quality cover in every position," he said in a question-and-answer session. Quite so, Lol. But Skirving's eat-up-the-ground charges from the base of the scrum have been putting both Corry and Dallaglio in the shade of late.

Saracens' coaches talk warmly of Skirving's nifty footwork and organisational skills in line-out and defence. Gloucester's No 8 Jamie Forrester is struggling with a rib injury, and of the contenders at blindside flanker, Pat Sanderson has a back strain, Joe Worsley is looking for form after being injured in the autumn, and Lewis Moody is serving a ban. Whether Corry might shift to No 6 to allow Skirving in is up to Robinson. The young pretender, who led England Under-16s and won a Grand Slam with the Under-21s in 2004, is happy with his form.

"I've had a great start to the season in terms of playing in every game and making 14 starts out of 16," he says. "It was due to getting a good pre-season under my belt for the first time in my professional career. Last year I had two injuries [a dislocation to each shoulder] which didn't help me fitness-wise, in building up with the weights."

Skirving's parents, John and Val, moved south from Teesside for work and university, and though Ben was born in Essex by dint of the handiest hospital being in Harlow, his heart and mind belong to Herts. He went to Bishop's Stortford High School, and at the local rugby club he wore hand-me-down kit donated by an alumnus and, coincidentally, another famous England No 8, Ben Clarke. As such, Skirving is closer to home at Saracens than any of the 56 - count them, 56 - internationals who have played for the club in the 10 years of open rugby.

Records show that Skirving, who joined Saracens' academy at 14 and made his senior debut in December 2002, has faced Corry twice in the clubs' past five meetings. Skirving showed the pace of a threequarter with his fourth try of the season, against Ulster last month, and he has represented England in sevens.

But arguably the most useful practice for the Leicester fixture, which is known for more than its share of yellow and red cards, was his first-ever stint in the sin-bin against London Irish last Tuesday. "I was looking after a mate," was Skirving's version, and footage of the 25-man brawl showed it began with Irish's wing Delon Armitage engaged in argy-bargy with Saracens' Ben Russell, a colleague of Skirving through the England age-groups. Skirving gave Armitage a couple of open-handed shoves in the face and off they both went.

"Leicester is quite an intimidating place," says Skirving. "Personally I turn it into a positive and try to feed off the crowd. I'm looking forward to it."

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