Tim Glover: Dan can be an Ashton hero

Nurtured to Kiwi fruition, educated at grass roots, Bristol's No 8 is ready to graduate
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The Independent Online

Dan Ward-Smith, a No 8 who has handed off one England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, and is threatening to depose another in Martin Corry, may sound English but he is anything but. "I'm a quarter Maori, a quarter Lebanese and a quarter Scottish," he said. That leaves the hyphen. "Let's say the other bit is English."

Best to start at the beginning. Ward-Smith was born in Palmerston North in New Zealand at a time when his parents were separating. He was adopted by an English couple, Richard and Diane, both teachers, who were living in New Zealand.

When he was three they moved to Cornwall, although a decade later he went back to New Zealand, attending school and university at Palmerston North before returning to England at 21 with, among other things, a rugby education.

He met his birth parents when he was 16. "They're lovely people. What's happened has not had a massive influence on my life." What did was spending time in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

"I was quite good at soccer," he said, "but if you live in New Zealand you're going to pick up the rugby bug sooner or later. You seem to spend every waking moment playing the game." Ward-Smith recalls playing for Manawatu against Jerry "The Hitman" Collins when the All Black was starting out with Wellington. "He was nothing like he is now, although everyone knew all about him even then."

Ward-Smith was nothing like he is now either, but as a dynamic performer in Bristol's fairy-tale season in the Guinness Premiership almost everyone is getting to know him. In the autumn, when the scrum-half Shaun Perry made his England debut, Ward-Smith observed: "I spend a lot of time standing next to Shaun so you never know, someone might spot me."

They spotted him all right. At 6ft 4in and 18st, his eye-catching performances meant he was called up for England training without ever getting on the team bus - "there was a lot of pressure on the side and the time wasn't right"- but last week, Brian Ashton, the new head coach, named him in a squad of 33 for the Six Nations. Corry has lost the captaincy to Phil Vickery, and Dallaglio is out of the loop altogether.

"I'm closer but I'm not there yet," Ward-Smith said. "People like to build you up, but I need a big, big month if I'm going to make the final 22. I'm going to have to play out of my skin every match." Bristolians say he has been doing just that. On New Year's Day he scored the only try in Bristol's 10-6 win at Sale.

Ward-Smith shares a flat in Bristol with Perry and, aside from England recognition and the fact they have signed new club contracts to 2009, they have something else in common. They were both artisans rather than artists, astutely recruited from National League One; Perry from Coventry - he was a welder in his day job - Ward-Smith from Plymouth Albion. When Bristol were relegated, a useful by-product was that the club came up against players like these, and their coach, Richard Hill, subsequently tapped them up.

"Hilly's not afraid to make off-the-wall signings, either from a lower league or older players," Ward-Smith said. "We've sparked off each other and improved not just as a team but as individuals."

Ward-Smith has taken his time. From Budehaven Community College he was spotted training with Launceston by Graham Dawe, the former England hooker who runs Plymouth, and the two linked up in 1999. During Plymouth's march up the league tables he scored a staggering 101 tries, and although he did not join Bristol until 2005 he might have gone to the Premiership four seasons earlier.

After Plymouth played Harlequins in a cup match, Zinzan Brooke asked Ward-Smith if he would be interested in a move to the Stoop. "Zinzan was one of my all-time heroes and I wasn't sure he was serious," he said. He never had a chance to find out, because soon after Brooke was sacked as the Quins coach. So Ward-Smith carried on scoring tries down by the Tamar until, playing his 100th consecutive game for Plymouth, which happened to be against Bristol, he finally shed his skin.

"I knew Hilly was interested in me and I had a good game. I was pumped up for it. I loved it at Plymouth but it was time to get out of the comfort zone. Bristol were genuinely keen. Other clubs wanted me but I knew they'd put me on the back burner.

"When I made the leap I was a bit concerned. I looked at some of the other players and thought: 'What have I got to offer?' I was very quiet. Maybe the physical level would be beyond me. I soon realised they were normal people and I could do as much as anybody else."

This is not surprising. In part, Ward-Smith's strength and pace come from being a gym junkie. "I love weight training, always have. I'm hooked on it. Some think it's the worst thing about rugby but I can't wait to get in there. I feel really fresh. Others have had their bodies battered and I've not taken the beatings yet. I set goals in a little book. It's about being the best you can be."

It helps that his girlfriend, Jamie, is a personal trainer at the gym he uses. She bought him a Porsche 911 for Christmas, and although it was only a model version, one day he would like to own the real thing.

Ward-Smith, a car nut and a surfer, turned 29 last Tuesday, the day he was named in England's new elite squad. He celebrated by having bangers and mash at a restaurant called the Clifton Sausage (no cow pie for Desperate Dan), followed by a visit to Starbucks. "I don't really drink, although when I do it's never a quiet beer, more of a binge," he admits. "Every now and then I have a big night which the following morning I wish I'd never had."

Today he has a big afternoon, with Bristol, top of the table, hosting Northampton, and Richard Ward-Smith will be a spectator at the Memorial Stadium. "He used to watch every match at Plymouth but this will be the first time he has ever seen me play in the Premiership. That's extra incentive. You've got to impress your dad, haven't you?"