Tait gives glimpse of the future

Past schoolmaster hails precocious talent of young Newcastle centre who joins gallery of great hopes
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When Mathew Tait was still at school - and we are talking all of about nine months ago - it was Martin Pepper's job to rein in a prodigious talent commonly regarded as England's next big thing.

"He often had to be moved to a position to nullify him, otherwise he'd just walk through the opposition," Pepper said. "He'd be put at second row or No 8, anywhere to get him out of the way, really." It was an act of mercy. As Tait's sports master at Barnard Castle, Pepper felt obliged occasionally to give the other 29 lads on the pitch a chance.

In the ultra-competitive arena of the Zurich Premiership, no such considerations apply. Last April, a week after sitting (and attaining with top grades) three A-levels, Tait passed from Pepper's hands into those of Rob Andrew at Newcastle Falcons and, in his rightful position in the threequarters, scored a try on his debut against London Irish.

"We wanted to give the Newcastle public a glimpse of his potential," said Andrew, a fellow alumnus of Barnard Castle, the stately public school in Tait's native County Durham. The rest of the plan was to bring Tait on gently, in the same way and at the same club as Andrew did with Jonny Wilkinson six or seven years ago, but precocious ability and injuries to Mark Mayerhofler, Epi Taione and Michael Stephenson dictated otherwise. Tait has made 12 first-team appearances in the Premiership, Heineken Cup and Powergen Cup (his next will be against Sale in the Premiership today) and ticked more boxes than David Blunkett on a visa form.

"His talent overcomes any suggestion of doing too much, too soon," said Pepper, a former First Division flanker with Harlequins among others. "He's extremely ambitious and dedicated." Last summer, Tait was fast-tracked by Sir Clive Woodward into the senior national academy, and as a result has been training with the England squad this season, in addition to competing in sevens in Dubai and South Africa.

He is reported to have received one of Woodward's 140 preliminary-offer letters ahead of the Lions tour to New Zealand in June. At this rate, with England's most experienced centres, Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood, hors de combat, it is not too fantastical to suggest Tait could emulate Wilkinson and appear in the Six Nations' Championship before his 19th birthday - it falls the day after the opening fixture against Wales - although alternatives exist in the shape of his club-mate Jamie Noon, Olly Barkley, Stuart Abbott, Ollie Smith and the much-maligned Henry Paul.

"I feel I have adjusted OK to senior rugby," said Tait, showing no sign of being dazzled by the limelight. "I feel part of the Newcastle squad, though it was bizarre at first. I'd been coming here for years, and then found myself running out and playing with the guys I'd been watching."

He and Wilkinson jet down to England sessions together - along with Noon and Newcastle's scrum-half Hall Charlton, they attended coach Andy Robinson's debrief of the autumn series in Surrey a fortnight ago. "There was video analysis of the defence and attack and I tried to pick up a few things," said Tait.

"Matthew Burke [the former Wallaby now at Newcastle] has been a big influence - when he talks, you listen. Jonny is in a similar mould. He sets out what he wants people to put into the team. It's good, sound stuff."

Tait will inevitably have to deal with being tagged the "new Jonny", and in some respects it is apt. "He rings me after matches and tells me what was good and what was bad," said Pepper. "He's self-critical in a constructive way." But one place you won't find Tait is out with the goal-kicking tee on Christmas Day. "I had a 10 per cent conversion rate off the floor," he said with a chuckle of his sporadic schoolboy efforts at fly-half.

Where this latest 5ft 11in, 12st 6lb blond bombshell scores heavily is in delivering the threequarter's dream of bringing pace to the line, allied with control, vision and appreciation of space. His preferred role is outside-centre, where he will line up today. "You get the ball a bit more and break the line. Defensively, too, it's quite an important position."

A set of snapshots from the Tait gallery this season would include a lightning-quick chase to harry the Dragons' Wales full-back Kevin Morgan into a try-conceding mistake in the Heineken Cup; a thunderclap of a tackle on the bulky Jake Boer to save a try at Gloucester; and a second half of wonderful empathy with Wilkinson as Newcastle all but made up a 17-point deficit in last month's Power-gen Cup tie at Saracens.

The last-named match ended with the customary queue of autograph hunters gathered in the evening chill to wait for Golden (Oval) Balls, allowing the slight figure of Mathew Tait to slip by unnoticed. It may not be that way for much longer.