This must be the time of Balshaw's life

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The Independent Online

Three years ago, just as Iain Balshaw was preparing for his first start as an England Test player, his elders and betters in the Red Rose army decided to take industrial action in pursuit of better pay and conditions.

This unprecedented outbreak of sporting militancy confused the hell out of the lad. He had experienced the international high life in the great citadels of northern-hemisphere union - Twickenham, Stade de France, Murrayfield - but only as a bit-part actor, rugby's version of the "third spear-carrier". He wanted more, and was about to get it when the Johnsons and Dawsons of his recent acquaintance suddenly discovered Scargillism.

The dispute petered out, of course - it is not terribly easy for a workforce to maintain their hold on public sympathy when they are driving around in swanky Mercedes two-seaters - and Balshaw duly played a full role in England's 19-0 victory over the touring Argentinians. But the incident underlined one of the undying truths of sport - namely, that the road to self-fulfilment is littered with the potholes of circumstance.

In the autumn of 2000, Balshaw was considered the most exciting rugby talent to emerge in England since Jer-emy Guscott, and many would argue that he remains just that. But his career, seemingly bound for the high peaks, has rarely moved out of base camp for longer than a day.

There have been moments of luminous brilliance, not least when he ran rings round the French in the 2001 Six Nations' Championship, but a combination of factors - bad injuries, bad man-management and, it has to be said, a bad attitude - earned him a reputation as the lost genius of the British game. The process of rediscovery has not been easy.

Today, he faces the hard-hitting Samoans in the very heart of Australian Rules territory. The locals here in Melbourne would not recognise George Gregan or Steve Larkham if they walked into the nearest bar, let alone a 24-year-old underachiever from Blackburn, but if Balshaw happens to click in the Telstra Dome, they will quickly appreciate the significance of what they are watching.

So, too, will Clive Woodward, the England coach, who has supported the Bath full-back through thick and thin and is waiting for an opportunity to fast-track him into his élite side. It is no exaggeration to say this is the most important match of Balshaw's career.

"It's a big game, that's for sure," he acknowledged during a break from preparations last week, "and I feel very good about it. I would have played in the first pool match against Georgia but for a minor injury problem, and I was pretty disappointed at missing out. But I've spent 12 weeks doing the physical stuff, the technical stuff and everything else that's been thrown at me in preparation for this tournament, and I am ready to meet the challenge. I know that I can play this game and I am certain I can deliver at the top level. That's just talk, though. Nobody wants to see some action more than me."

Balshaw hit rock-bottom so quickly after scaling the summit against the French that it was almost as if he had disappeared over a cliff-face. His experience with the 2001 Lions in Australia was miserable in the extreme - misused and misunderstood by the head coach, Graham Henry, he was almost unpickable by the end of the tour - and within weeks of his return, he was struggling for fitness as well as faith. Woodward ignored the evidence of his own eyes and selected him at full-back for the Grand Slam match with Ireland that October, which did neither man any favours. It was a desperate time.

"I think the turning point came when I had shoulder- reconstruction surgery and had no choice but to do the couch potato thing and forget all about rugby," he said. "I put a lot of things in perspective during that period of inactivity. I was too wound up about my game, I was trying to force things and getting angry with myself when they didn't go right. When people started questioning my ability, I found myself doing the same. My spontaneity disappeared, and my sense of enjoyment went with it.

"These days, I'm more relaxed. Clive has been fantastically supportive, and I thank him for that. There have been times over the last eight or nine months when he has been talking me up, but I haven't been able to get on the field for one reason or another. With the best will in the world, you begin to feel a bit of a fool. But I am strong now, and I am grateful for this opportunity.

"As there seem to be three outstanding players for every position in the team, it won't be easy to get back to where I was in 2001. But it won't be for the want of trying."

Not to put too fine a point on it, Balshaw owes Melbourne a glimpse of something special. His last appearance here, as a replacement during the Second Test of that ill-starred Lions tour, exposed him in all his defensive frailty; indeed, the Wallabies ran riot during his time on the field, scoring three unanswered tries and turning the series on its head. Today, he should see far more of the ball and far less of the opposition. And if he catches fire, tens of thousands of Melbournians will understand why rugby union is worth watching.