The Saturday Interview: Michael Lipman

Michael Lipman, rejected by the New South Wales Waratahs, will play a key role against Biarritz today and is determined to earn a recall to England's colours
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Two summers ago, when the recently crowned world champions of England were being plastered all over the southern hemisphere on a three-Test adventure very nearly as awful as the legendarily grim "tour from hell" in 1998, the beach-bum Sydneysider won a couple of caps off the bench. The second of them was against the country of his upbringing in Brisbane, where he played a whole eight minutes at the fag-end of a thrashing.

"They awarded a penalty late on, when they were miles in front, but kicked it anyway to bring up the half-century," he recalled. "George Gregan was captain, and I could hear his players saying: 'Come on, George, let's make it 50.' It wasn't a great night out."

After that... zip. Andy Robinson, one of the more celebrated of Lipman's predecessors in the Bath back row, committed himself to the cause of Lewis Moody in the national No 7 shirt when he succeeded Sir Clive Woodward as head coach. He also had a long-standing admiration for the workaholic Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell, and when Pat Sanderson, a veteran of '98, started making things happen for himself at Worcester, he found some space for him, too. With Magnus Lund, of Sale, and Tom Rees, of Wasps, beginning to figure in the coach's thoughts as well, there were too many breakaway specialists to fit on the sofa. Lipman was the one who found himself on the floor.

Yet what goes around, comes around. Lipman's stock is on the rise again, thanks to the crimes and misdemeanours that marked England's campaign in the Six Nations Championship. Robinson remains a firm supporter of Moody, but even he now wonders whether the aggressive Leicester forward is enough of a dirt-grubbing, sniffer-dog type to perform the open-side role to the required standard. During his playing days, the coach was a brilliant operator on the floor.

So, too, was Neil Back. Of the open-sides currently playing in the Premiership, the man who does most of what needs to be done in terms of deck-work is Lipman. He proved as much last week, when Bath beat Bristol in a hard-bitten West Country derby at the Recreation Ground. When the home side were in control before the interval, the likes of Isaac Fea'unati and Andy Beattie were the loose forwards who caught the eye. When the boot was on the other foot in the second half, it was Lipman who made the important tackles and secured the crucial turnovers.

Another performance like that in this afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final with Biarritz in San Sebastian will leave him very close to a seat on the plane for this summer's trip to ... Australia. Where else? "I've always been a No 7," he said this week, as he contemplated 80 minutes of high-intensity rugby against Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy, experienced international operators who remain among the most potent back-rowers in French rugby.

"I'm too short to be a blind-side flanker, too small to play No 8. I spent my time in the backs when I was a kid, but that was because I wanted to look good. All my instincts are geared towards the open-side position, so that's where I've played all my serious rugby. It's a tough position, but I love it." Lipman was good enough to come to the notice of the Waratahs - the New South Wales franchise in what was then known as Super 12 - but not considered quite good enough to break into the big time.

"I played for Waratahs Bs, but that was as far as I got," he said. "My best friends in rugby back home, people like George Smith and David Lyons, had their contracts safely in their back pockets, but I couldn't get myself a deal. So I started to think about trying my luck in England. When Bristol showed some interest, I signed for them."

And so began two wild, wacky seasons at the Memorial Ground. When Lipman arrived, the coaches were Dean Ryan, one of the brightest of England's new back-room breed, and Jimmy Grant, an Australian who had alerted the club to Lipman's qualities in the first place.

Bristol, an up-and-down lot to put it mildly, cemented their place in the Premiership that first season, and made a debut in the Heineken Cup in the second, beating the powerful French side Montferrand both home and away and putting 40 points on Swansea.

Yet while they were getting things right in Europe, they were getting them badly wrong domestically. By the end of the campaign, they were deep in the relegation mire, along with neighbouring Bath.

"That was a rubbish time - the absolute worst," Lipman said. "There was all this talk of a merger with Bath, which I think might have happened had Bath been the ones that finished bottom. No one could tell us anything. Where would Bristol be the following season? Would there be a club at all? It was anyone's guess. I felt really sorry for the local players, people who had grown up burning to play for Bristol. They took it hardest.

"As it turned out, we were relegated on the last day and everyone left. I went back to Australia with no particular plans. Then, Michael Foley [the World Cup-winning Wallaby working on the Bath coaching staff] got in touch, and I signed. It was the best thing I ever did."

All things considered, Lipman would have preferred not to have fractured his eye socket and broken his cheekbone within minutes of taking the field for Bath's first warm-up game of the campaign last August, especially as he had just recovered from the chronic problems with an ankle that wrecked the last four months of his 2004-05 season.

"I'd just got myself back in proper shape," he said. "Before I knew it, I was out for another eight weeks. I can't say I was too happy." Yet, in a way, the cloud had a lining of brightest silver.

He is far closer to being in one piece than most players at this late stage of proceedings, and therefore perfectly placed to come with a rush on the England front. "Am I a better player now than when I won my England caps? Yes, I believe I am," he agreed. "It helps playing in a good club, one that pushes you and doesn't guarantee you a starting place every weekend."

As Bath used Gareth Delve, the young Welsh international, on the open-side flank in the Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leicester, he was speaking from the heart. "It's incredibly competitive here," he continued. "I played alongside Gareth, who can perform any of the back-row roles, at Northampton a couple of weeks ago and he was awesome, our best forward by miles. There is no let-up when you're one of four people chasing three places. The pressure is always on."

Today, Lipman is very definitely in the starting line-up. If there was any doubt in the mind of Brian Ashton, the head coach, it disappeared in that flurry of Wallabyesque ball-winning against Bristol. Biarritz are devastating off turnover ball - indeed, they base their attacking game around it - but at Ashton's prompting, Bath are beginning to operate along similar lines. Fea'unati scored a try last weekend that might have been patented by the Basques themselves.

Happily, it is precisely the kind of rugby to which Lipman responds best. "Brian has not been here long, but he's already instilled a massive amount of belief," he said. "He wants us to test ourselves, to express ourselves. He keeps on at us to attack space, to raise the tempo, to get out there and do something. It seems to me that this is what the best French teams do. People say Biarritz play within themselves, but they'll want to put on a show this weekend. When you take on the French in a big game, you know the pace will be high, that they'll offload out of the tackle, that they'll hit you from everywhere. That's the fun of it.

"I've played in a couple of Twickenham finals for Bath, but this is the ultimate in club rugby. There's nothing else out there this good." European pioneers that they are, Bath understand this better than anyone. They have not clapped their hands on a trophy since Robinson's side won the Heineken Cup in 1998, yet Lipman's motivation today has nothing to do with the yearning of long-suffering supporters.

"There is a negativity about going into a game thinking about what hasn't been achieved in the past," he said. "It has to be about this team and its ambitions, not about the failures of others. But I've learnt enough about Bath and its history to know I'd choose this club over any in the world."

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