The Saturday Interview: Voyce eager to get backs to business

Tom Voyce admits to being more of a winger than a full-back but England's new No 15 believes he can help the red rose to bloom at Twickenham today
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The Independent Online

Woodward experimented everywhere and changed virtually everything - in his first 20 matches as national coach, he picked a dozen wings and the same number of centres while ripping up protocols, entering into public arguments with friend and foe alike and booking entire tour parties into expensive hotels of his own choosing with a flash of his American Express card. If he ever makes it to the House of Lords, he'll probably set fire to the Woolsack.

The one thing he did not tinker with - not often, at least - was the England full-back position. Over the course of his seven-year administration, only three players were given the official seal of approval: the courageous and utterly reliable Matthew Perry of Bath; the fleet-footed and prickly Iain Balshaw, who was Perry's polar opposite both athletically and temperamentally; and Jason Robinson, that curiously intense refugee from rugby league who could Fred Astaire his way through the best defences in the world game on a good day, and disorientate his own colleagues on a bad one.

Since Andy Robinson succeeded Woodward in the autumn of 2004, all three have disappeared from view - the first two under an avalanche of injuries, the third into the bosom of his family. Suddenly, the position is in a state of flux. Josh Lewsey, "more a right wing than a full-back" according to one senior England player, has been the coach's automatic choice at No 15 for the last 20 months or so, but there is a threat on the horizon in the shape of Lewsey's fellow Wasp, the lean and angular Tom Voyce. Throw in a third member of England's champion side, the naturalised New Zealander Mark van Gisbergen, and the potential for internecine strife in downtown Acton is considerable indeed.

Voyce is the man chosen for this evening's profoundly important Six Nations game with Ireland at Twickenham. Lewsey, both out of form and out of breath after flogging himself around the rugby fields of Christendom since regaining his place in the side at the mid-point of the 2003 championship, was the heaviest casualty of last weekend's depressing capitulation to the French in Paris and has now returned to his club for what he hopes will be a spell of "enjoyable rugby". A loaded comment if ever there was one. Van Gisbergen, meanwhile, is currently engaged in rebuilding his confidence after the horrors of the autumn, when his game fell apart just as he was within touching distance of an international debut.

If truth be told, Voyce is also more a wing than a full-back. Does this worry him, ahead of a game of today's magnitude? Hardly. He does not do worry. The more he bulks up - the 25-year-old Cornishman has added 20lbs to his whippersnapper's frame since moving from Bath to Wasps three seasons ago - the more he develops a spirit of can-do optimism. He was not exactly a wallflower during his days at the Recreation Ground, and some influential figures there resented his self-assurance, settled as they were in an environment in which players were expected to earn the right to hold opinions. At Wasps, probably less hierarchical and certainly less barbed, he is in his element.

"It's true I haven't spent as much time at full-back as many people imagine, and I still see myself primarily as a wing," Voyce admitted this week. "But the way I look at it, it's good to have an opportunity to do something new. It's in my interests to be seen as good in two positions. If I can say I'm a great full-back as well as a great wing, it has to be of benefit to me." The word "great" is subject to chronic overuse, not least by sportsmen, but you get his drift.

Voyce did not look particularly good, let alone great, when he offered an outside track to Tom Varndell during the Powergen Cup semi-final with Leicester a fortnight ago and saw the hottest finisher in European rugby accept it with the deepest gratitude. Did he feel a little daft, eating mouthfuls of Millennium Stadium grass while Varndell was disappearing into the wide blue yonder? "I didn't feel brilliant," he replied. "Did I beat myself up over it? A little, after the game. I'd have beaten myself a whole lot more if I'd had that kind of chance myself and not scored. I was caught flat-footed, and Varndell's quick. It happens."

Wasps were certainly guilty of a few errors in victory that day, but England made infinitely more in defeat last Sunday. Voyce played only the last quarter, so was spared the heavy flak aimed at the likes of Lewsey, Mike Tindall, Charlie Hodgson and Matt Dawson. There is a musketeerish air about the squad, however - not even the most implacable of Andy Robinson's critics would deny that under his stewardship, deep bonds of loyalty have been established- and the new full-back respects the culture of brotherhood as much as anyone.

"How do I explain what happened in Paris? I can't, because it was so bizarre," he said with a shrug of the shoulders and a splaying of the hands. "I've experienced bad moments with Wasps; for the last two seasons, we haven't managed to get out of our pool in Europe. But I can't hide from the fact that this was a particularly grim match for all of us - one of those shit-happens days, a day when everything that could possibly go wrong did exactly that. The outsiders have their views and theories, of course: the writers, the radio people, the pundits... they've all had their say. From an insider's point of view, it's about having the debrief and then putting the whole thing away. We made a lot of mistakes against France, but that's what people do occasionally. Apparently, Steven Gerrard made one on the same day and it cost Liverpool a game of football. We heard about it when we were on the coach, heading for the airport."

So far, so sanguine. But there is a very different air about the team into which Voyce has been promoted this week, as opposed to the one he joined at the start of the tournament last month - a period of six weeks that now seems like 60, or even 600. He played an hour of the game against Wales, which England won by 34 points, and all 80-odd minutes against Italy the following week, which yielded another victory, albeit one of more workmanlike virtue. Two defeats later, polish has given way to rust.

So little is happening in the red-rose back division that the selectors might as well pick 15 forwards, 13 of them props. What is it with these England backs? Why the stagnation? "I'm not sure it's any great mystery," he said. "I think it's to do with two things: quick ball, and depth. We're not hitting the ball hard enough, or from deep enough areas of the field, and as rugby is such a power game these days, that's a serious issue. But to get this element right, you need speed of ball. Without it, backs find themselves laying too flat and the problems snowball. Look at the tapes. Against Wales, we off-loaded out of contact and ran good lines from deep. It killed them. For a good deal of the Italy game we struggled to do that, but kept our patience and played our way through it. Unfortunately, the whole of the France match was like the worst bits of the Italy game. We made it easy for them to get on the front foot, and we paid the price." Harsh as it may seem, given his consistency of performance over three unforgiving years, Lewsey could easily find himself paying the price for his uncharacteristically fragile display at Stade de France.

He must recognise that a player who makes the most of an opportunity at international level can find himself in for the duration; after all, Lewsey did precisely this in March 2003 when a spate of injuries allowed him the whiff of a Six Nations spot against Italy at Twickenham. He scored two tries that afternoon, put another past the Scots 13 days later and embarked on a run of ever-presence that took him through the World Cup and way beyond. A strong contribution from Voyce here may yet see the biter bit.

"As Josh has been the most dependable England back for years now, he's probably feeling pretty annoyed," his rival conceded. "I'd be annoyed if I was him. But it's typical of him that the moment the team was announced, he sent me a text message saying: 'Good luck Tom, get out there and show 'em what you can do.' There's no mutual hatred among the players in this squad, just huge respect. As Josh knows better than me, we don't determine selection."