The Saturday Interview: Palmer soaks up the pain in fight to be noticed at Wasps

The new second row at Adams Park wants to be an England regular. But, he tells Chris Hewett, he has enough on his plate trying to earn a starting place at his ultra-competitive club
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Just as the fully fit - or to put it more accurately, the least injured - of the Wasps forwards were dragging themselves around a field in Acton at the end of a training run geared towards tomorrow's Premiership meeting with Harlequins, the most celebrated of their number emerged, sweat-soaked and marble-sculpted, from the gymnasium. "Bloody weights," said Lawrence Dallaglio, clearly not best pleased with life. "They've got me doing two sessions a day, the first of them at seven in the morning. I'm in here before the kids are out of bed, for Chrissakes. Roll on the moment I can start playing again. I'll be less knackered."

There is, to put it mildly, a gym culture at Wasps. All modern-day Premiership players mix it with the metal, but only the Londoners make such a Schwarzenegger-ish virtue of shifting tons of iron in a vertical direction. Ask Tom Palmer, a new second-row arrival who has rather been taken aback by the intensity of the conditioning regime. His body aches, his muscles burn. And his eardrums? One hell of a state. On the rare occasions the coaches stop shouting at him, the deafening throb of the pump-it-up music maintains the decibel level at a constant maximum.

"It always struck me that Wasps were the fittest of teams when I played against them for Leeds, and now I understand why," Palmer said this week, a little over a fortnight into his competitive career at the club. "There's no hiding place here, no means of sneaking off to the back of the gym and having a quiet five minutes putting body and soul back together. They have six specialist conditioning coaches, for a start. The way the sessions are organised, there is a ratio of one coach for two players. If you take a short cut at this club, someone is bound to notice."

Palmer has not always been noticed as much as he would have liked, hence his move from Yorkshire to the capital during the summer. Capped by the then undecorated Clive Woodward as long ago as 2001 - while the Martin Johnsons and Danny Grewcocks were touring Australia with the British and Irish Lions, he materialised off the bench in a low-key Test against the United States in San Francisco - he has been lurking around the England scene for five years now, without ever forcing the hand of the red rose hierarchy. Injuries have hindered him, as have untimely outbreaks of form from his many rivals in the line-out department. And then there was the Leeds factor. Unfashionable clubs spawn unfashionable players, as anyone playing football for Bolton Wanderers or cricket for Derbyshire would readily confirm.

Not that it would be remotely fair to brand the 27-year-old as a glory hunter, or impugn his motives for leaving Headingley when he did. He spent the best part of a decade at Leeds, having joined them as a university student, and embraced their pioneering spirit every bit as enthusiastically as Phil Davies, his coach for the duration of his stay at the club, and Mike Shelley, the tough-as-old-boots prop who accumulated very nearly 170 league appearances over the course of a decade's labour. Palmer's record stands comparison with that of his fellow tight forward. After making his first-team debut at 19 - the club were in 1998's equivalent of National Division One - he played more than 140 league games, many of them under pressure at the sticky end of the Premiership table. Had the Tykes avoided relegation last May, he might still be with them. But they didn't, and he isn't.

"No, it didn't cross my mind to stay once we finished bottom," he admitted, unapologetically. "I felt I needed to continue playing my rugby at Premiership level, there was a clause in my contract that gave me an out and I exercised it. That's not to say it wasn't a terribly distressing, difficult time for me. Someone has to be a loser in professional sport, but you pray to God it won't be you. When it happens, it hits you hard. Inevitably, relegation brought a lot of uncertainty to the club; it left players wondering about their futures, and with Phil deciding to leave for Llanelli, it meant people were wondering about the coaching situation. We'd all shared in some good times - achieving promotion to the Premiership, winning the Powergen Cup, finishing in the top half of the league and qualifying for Europe. When you've experienced those things together, failure is hard to bear."

So what happened? Leeds had finished the 2004-05 campaign like a train, winning their last four Premiership matches while beating Bath in the cup final at Twickenham - a game in which Palmer underlined, if any underlining were needed, the fact that he is a forward of very high calibre indeed. They signed Justin Marshall, the All Black scrum-half, from Canterbury Crusaders, in the close season, and went to on play some excellent rugby in the Heineken Cup, beating Perpignan and thrashing Cardiff Blues before being inched out of a quarter-final place in the last round of pool games.

"Somehow, it was just like us to produce our best rugby at Heineken Cup level," Palmer answered with a sorrowful shake of the head. "People were predicting good things for us, especially when we signed Justin, but we also lost some players at that time - players who were more important to us than many realised. Phil Christophers was a heavy loss; Colm Rigney and Alix Popham, our best two No 8s, went at the same time. Justin played a lot of good stuff, but we brought in others who probably weren't the strongest. We also lost three consecutive Premiership games, all of them important, in the closing minutes. The closing seconds, even. You know then that it's not going your way."

If Marshall's bitterly disputed departure for the Ospreys left an apoplectic Leeds management without a good word to say on his behalf, Palmer left Headingley with the heartfelt blessing of those who mattered. He had served his time, paid his dues, earned his stripes, done more than his bit. "They were," he confirmed, "incredibly good about it all. I left on good terms, and I'm grateful for it. It means I have no reason to dwell on the past."

Which is probably as well, for Wasps are not renowned for offering a supportive environment to wistful types with one foot in the past. A Londoner by birth, Palmer knows what it is to operate outside the comfort zone; he did, after all, spend 18 months playing under-20s rugby in Otago, the home of New Zealand rucking. Now, he finds himself at a club that would not seem out of place in a similar location south of the Cook Strait. Warren Gatland, the former All Black hooker who coached the Londoners to three Premierships and a Heineken title before returning to the farmlands of Waikato, saw many similarities between Wasps and the best provincial sides in New Zealand. For Palmer, as for everyone else, it is a case of get up to speed or get lost.

"I need this challenge," he said. "Wasps were pretty much an automatic choice because of the competitive nature of the place. There are five specialist locks in the squad, plus Daniel Leo, who can move easily between the second row and the back row. Establishing myself will be easier said than done. But if I do nail down a place in the starting team, it will be a big step in the right direction. I've been on the fringe of the England set-up for a long time and it's a frustrating place to be. The only way I can make progress in that area is to perform well in this one."

Things will get harder before they get easier, but he has chosen well. Wasps, who won an awful lot of silverware without a set-piece game worthy of the name, needed a top-notch middle jumper, and will therefore give their new recruit the opportunities he craves. For his part, Palmer required some "beastings" on the training paddock, and a few home truths from the coaching staff, to toughen him up. By all accounts, he has been in receipt of both in recent weeks. He may be behind Steve Borthwick and Ben Kay in the international pecking order, but now he is part of a shop-window team, as opposed to a behind-the-curtain one, the gap will narrow soon enough.

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