Varndell's mix of style and vital statistics suggests an England talent in the making

The Leicester wing has enjoyed a fairy-tale start to his career, but Stade Français lie in wait today, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

And neither did he. There was precious little video analysis back in the stone age of the amateur era - come to think of it, there were precious few videos - and the really swanky computer-driven gadgetry currently to be found in the techno-suites of every professional club worth its salt was no more than a twinkle in the eye of some spotty and bespectacled geek on the far side of the Atlantic. Even so, there were good rugby players before the invention of the rewind button and they rarely let a bad experience go to waste. They were seldom fooled the same way twice.

No matter what humiliations a wing might inflict on his opponents - no matter how quick, powerful or Fred Astaire-ish he might be - there will come a time when the tries run dry. Not even Jonah Lomu in his pomp could find a way past the Springboks. It is, therefore, one of the many fascinations surrounding Tom Varndell, whose performances for Leicester this season have been sufficiently electrifying to contribute to the National Grid, that at some point, he will have to cope with failure.

A mere month out of his teens, Varndell has started 13 games for the Tigers and scored 14 tries. It does not take a modern-day Pythagoras to identify this as a strike-rate of unusual potency. There is stopwatch evidence of him covering 100 metres in 10.8sec, which makes him very rapid indeed, and at 6ft 3in, he is not there to be slapped around.

But the most noticeable things about Varndell are the indefinables, the barely describable ingredients that make up a style as distinctive as it is compelling. He is not a fast man who looks slow, like Lomu or Sitiveni Sivivatu; he is not an all-action dasher like Doug Howlett; he is not a scuttler like Christophe Dominici or Shane Williams. Instead, there is an effortless quality to his work, and something languid, too - a touch of Joe Rokocoko, perhaps, with a stardust sprinkling of the young Jeremy Guscott.

Sooner or later someone will work him out, but it has not happened yet. Last weekend, in his first Heineken Cup start, he went toe-to-toe with the Clermont Auvergne captain and top-notch French international Aurélien Rougerie, and won hands down. He scored a try, took a leading role in the creation of two others and generally performed as to the manner born. Bernard Laporte, the French national coach and an unashamed Rougerie enthusiast, crossed the Channel to watch his favourite wing. He must have left with Varndell on his mind, wishing he had learned his rugby at Chalon-sur-Saone in the Bourgogne or Châteaurenard in Provence, rather than Chinnor in the heart of middle England.

It must be some club, Chinnor. Paul Volley, one of the better open-side flankers never to win a cap for England, learned the ropes there, as did David Seymour, the current Saracens breakaway specialist, who was a near contemporary. Varndell was born in Kent, but moved to Oxfordshire in his infancy and started playing at Chinnor as a nine-year-old. Unlike many other players blessed with precocious athletic ability, he did not come to rugby through other sports. Rugby was first, second and last for the youngster. He never showed the slightest urge to play anything else.

"Dusty Hare [the former England full-back who manages the Leicester academy] was the one who spotted me, and he gave me my first link to the Tigers when I was 14," Varndell said this week during a break in preparations for today's profoundly challenging Heineken Cup game with Stade Français in Paris. "It was a big break for me and it helped me get picked for England Under-16s. As a result, I was offered a scholarship by Colston's School in Bristol. I was there two years and we never lost a game. There were 14 schoolboy internationals in the first team, so you can imagine how seriously they took their rugby."

Strange to relate, Varndell was not entirely convinced that he would return to Leicester after his A-levels. "I just wanted to play professional rugby and didn't much care where," he said. "And besides, I wasn't sure they'd offer me anything. They weren't exactly short of quality players, after all. But they did offer me something, and when Leicester come after you ... well, you do it, don't you? And they've made things happen for me so quickly. You don't expect to play Premiership rugby straight out of school, but that is pretty much what happened."

Varndell made his league debut against Gloucester in front of a full house at Welford Road. A week later, he played at Worcester and put three tries past the home side. Quite a start, all things considered. "It was a dream come true," he acknowledged. "When I arrived at the club on a full-time contract, I couldn't quite believe that I was training alongside the people I considered my role models - Geordan Murphy, Leon Lloyd, Austin Healey. And when they picked me for the Gloucester game and I found myself in the dressing-room with Martin Johnson and Neil Back, that was something else.

"Martin knew exactly how to handle me. He didn't say a word. He made me feel special by not making me out to be something special, if you see what I mean. He didn't ignore me, but he didn't make a point of putting a hand on my shoulder either. It was his way of accepting me, of making me feel I had a right to be there."

This rugby life is not all milk and honey, though. At the end of last month, Varndell was implicated in one of the worst Leicester performances in living memory - a Powergen Cup defeat in the rain and wind at Newport-Gwent Dragons. It was one of those desperate Friday night affairs where things start horribly and go downhill from there. "It was," he agreed, "absolutely awful. Most of us were off our games that evening, but I was worse than anyone. I was taken off and rightly so. I'd had the odd quiet match, but that was the first time I'd turned in a really bad one.

"It was good for me, I think, although it was pretty grim at the time. Those are the experiences that teach you something. What did I learn? The importance of focus, of concentration, and of understanding the price you pay for trying too hard to correct your previous mistake rather than applying yourself to the next task. I let it get to me - the rain, the crowd, the fact that I was down in Wales with all the hostility of the crowd. I think I'm a better, stronger player as a result of that game."

Strong enough to play for England one day? Maybe sooner rather than later? "Of course I'd love to win a cap," he said. "But I've just turned 20 and my priority is to build a career for myself here. I don't feel like the new kid on the block any more, but I still have to prove myself to my colleagues. Good press is nice, but in the end, I'll be judged by the people who coach me and play alongside me."

Abnormally fast, a natural finisher and a thinker to boot. Leicester are lucky to have Tom Varndell. If they are smart, England will grab themselves a piece of him while he is still extraordinary.

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