The bright new No 2 at No 10

Hodgson arrives from nowhere to shadow Wilkinson. Hugh Godwin talks to him
Click to follow

Somewhere in the north of England is the rugby equivalent of the man who turned down the Beatles, and James Wade, development manager and Under-21 coach at Sale Sharks, is thankful it isn't him.

In March of last year, Wade was pounding his local Lancashire beat at Aldwinians RUFC, taking in a county Under-20s match. But the lad who caught his eye was not a local. Charlie Hodgson had on the white No 10 jersey of Yorkshire and, an extraordinary 18 months later, he is set to swap it for similar garb in the vastly altered circumstances of his first start for England at Twickenham, against Romania on Saturday.

"Charlie was just head and shoulders above any one else on the field," Wade recalls of that red letter day in the Manchester suburbs. "The biggest surprise was that he was near the end of his first year at Durham University, but no other club had picked him up. I was there to look at Lancashire players, but I went back to the club and told them we had to get him in."

The Halifax-born Hodgson completed the task of steering Yorkshire's Under-20s to their final at Twickenham, and a 43-38 victory over East Midlands gave him an early win at HQ. In the meantime, a couple of runs for Sale's second XV confirmed that Wade's instincts had been right. Hodgson trained with the Sharks in last year's pre-season and, rather than return to Durham and his sports science degree, he signed a contract as a professional rugby player.

Fast forward to last Tuesday, and Hodgson cut an unassuming figure as he sat in a deep leather armchair at the Pennyhill Park hotel, coming to terms with his inclusion on the England bench for yesterday's match against the world champions. "I was very surprised," he said, adding a gasped "oh" in confirmation. "I came here as one of a squad of 26, thinking the 22 for the Australia game would be announced, and I'd be going back to Sale the next day."

A white board set up in the team room told a different story. "They showed us the board with all the names on, and I thought 'Oh my God, what am I doing on there?' We had a meeting, then we went out and trained, but as soon as I got back into my room, I was phoning my parents and a few friends."

Hodgson's parents, Chris and Christine, were supportive of his decision to join Sale. "It was a hard choice, I'd made some good friends at Durham, I was enjoying my rugby and didn't know anything about being a professional. But I thought if I was going to take my chance it might as well be now, and I can always go back to my studies."

Take his chance, he did, with both hands and a particularly accurate right boot. A debut in the European Shield at Auch in France tested the mettle. Wade remembers the assuredness of Hodgson's goal-kicking, but the Sale staff quickly became accustomed to it, and to Hodgson's speed off the mark, a useful commodity for an ambitious outside-half.

In the second half of last season, Hodgson kept an international No 10, Fiji's Nicky Little, out of the Sale side, and a couple of appearances at Under-21 and A level for England – having previously earned Schools and Students caps – marked him out as one to watch. But he did not tour with Clive Woodward's senior squad to North America, instead heading to Australia for the Sanzar Under-21 tournament, which amounted to only 20 minutes' play after he injured a hamstring.

No matter. A mere 11 months after his first Zurich Premiership start – and three days before his 21st birthday – Hodgson was at Twickenham yesterday. He has vaulted ahead of Bath's Olly Barkley among others as the pretender to Jonny Wilkinson's throne. "It was difficult with Sale at first because the pack were struggling," Hodgson said. "Over the summer, they brought some good forwards in, and it's helped my job."

His Sale team-mate, Jason Robinson, is another enjoying the momentum generated by a pack in forward gear. "Jason has a very positive effect," said Hodgson. "He's very lively in the dressing room, and he's always in there with sound advice when you need it. Whenever you give him the ball he gets up to his tricks, beats a few players and scores a few tries."

If Hodgson, a stocky presence at 5ft 10in and 13st, has thrived on feeding the beast – and scored four tries and kicked 52 goals himself in 10 matches this season – what's it like supporting Robinson's famously mazy runs? "There's no point in trying to follow him, because he just goes off in his own direction. My thinking is that if I just go in a straight line, hopefully I'll catch up with him."

The shortest distance between two points – a suitable metaphor for Charlie Hodgson's career path to date.