Even in the School of Hard Knocks, some knocks are harder than others. Paul Volley, who graduated with honours from the union faculty of the aforementioned educational establishment long before Wasps started playing their rugby at football grounds, remembers one particular England midweek game in up-country South Africa, when he was attacked by a security guard's dog and threatened by a drunken Boer with a chest the size of a small game park. "We hadn't even kicked off," he recalled. "I thought to myself: 'Bloody hell, this is a bit on the lively side'."
Thirteen days ago, Volley found himself in an equally challenging predicament, having clashed heads with his club captain and infinitely more celebrated back-row partner, Lawrence Dallaglio, during his side's magisterial Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Gloucester. The collision measured 9.5 on whatever scale you care to name. Both men spent several minutes in the middle of the following week before playing on, and both required precautionary brain scans in the days after the game. If truth be told, they were too dazed to decide whether or not they were concussed.
"I don't remember the incident, for obvious reasons, but I watched the video afterwards and I have to say I didn't look too well," the flanker admitted. "When I came round on the pitch, the first thing I heard was the team doctor advising me to go off. I didn't want to go off - not in a game against Gloucester, of all people - but when the doctor decided to assess my condition by asking me the score, I knew I was in trouble; I rarely have a clue about the scoreline, even when I haven't had a smack on the head. Fortunately, I could see the scoreboard over his shoulder. I clocked the numbers, read them out and he said: 'You're all right, carry on'."
All of this is grist to the Volley mill. Contrary to popular belief, he is not a Londoner; he is an Oxfordshire chap, actually, and joined Wasps from the Chinnor club as a teenager. But he talks and plays like a back-row bandit from the rough end of town, and often appears to have more Shepherd's Bush about him than Dallaglio, who was born and bred there. He stands squarely in the tradition of tough-nut Wasps like Mark Rigby, Buster White and Matt Greenwood - often under-valued by Joe Public, but always cherished by their peers.
For his part, Volley cherishes Wasps. "I've been here exactly half my life," said the 32-year-old, proudly, "and I love the club to pieces. I suppose rugby has lost some of the values of the amateur era, but Wasps have been more successful than many major sides in retaining the best of the old spirit, and this is what makes the place special. But if you ask me whether I regret some of the changes, I'd have to admit that I do. Rugby is a business now. Loyalty is going out of the window."
And there is the rub, for Volley has spent much of the season wondering whether the loyalty he always championed now carries too high a price. The knock he took to his heart and soul at the start of the campaign, when a hot young openside destroyer from the wilds of Connacht by the name of Jonny O'Connor established himself as first-choice breakaway, was heavier than any he had taken to his head over the previous 16 years. Had it not been for the World Cup, and the fact that Dallaglio and Joe Worsley were out of Wasps circulation for the first three months of the season, Volley might now be playing his rugby elsewhere.
"Selection is a massive part of being a rugby player - at least, it is in my book," he said. "It's all about being in the team. I cannot for the life of me understand those people who spend years in the shadows, training the house down every week but rarely playing a match. I feel like saying to them: 'For God's sake, if you can't get a game where you are, find yourself a club where you can get one.' So you can guess how pissed off I was when Jonny got in ahead of me. I don't like sitting on replacements' benches, and it kills me when I'm left out of the 22. Suddenly, these things were a possibility.
"As it turned out, the World Cup made my situation easier than it might have been. I shifted position and started playing on the blindside flank, which I'd always assumed was similar to my usual role. I quickly realised my mistake; the two positions are completely different. The move changed me for the better. It's pretty ironic, given the circumstances, but I'm a more rounded player now."
All the same, his recent experiences have set him thinking. When Dallaglio and Worsley returned from the World Cup, Volley found himself on the bench, kicking his heels and twiddling his bandaged thumbs during Premiership and European matches he badly wanted to be a part of, and had O'Connor not suffered a serious Achilles injury that ended his season prematurely, he might have struggled to make the cut for tomorrow afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final with Munster in Dublin. O'Connor, widely considered to be a Lion in the making, will be back in September; Dallaglio and Worsley will still be around. For these reasons, Volley has yet to commit himself to a new contract.
He will, however, commit himself to the cause this weekend; indeed, it is possible to argue that this match with Munster - and, should the London club progress, the final against either Toulouse or Biarritz - represents the culmination of a long, bruising and passionately conducted tour of duty in the trenches of professional club rugby. Volley did his bit for his country in 2000, when he played three brutal dirt-trackers' matches in Springbok country. But what really counts is Wasps, and this is not the time to let little irrelevances like future employment interfere with the competitive thought processes.
"I've won cup finals with this club, and league titles too," he said. "The Heineken Cup would be the crowning glory. If we can win in Dublin in front of almost 50,000 Irishmen... well, it would be fantastic for us, the perfect realisation of everything we've worked towards. Can we do it? Yes, I believe so. Lawrence describes this as the biggest occasion in the club's history, and he's right. There is no greater incentive, having achieved what we have in domestic rugby, than success in Europe.
"Lawrence will get us going, I have no doubt. He's away with England a fair bit of the time, but when he's here with us, he's magic. The bigger the game, the more inspiring he is; I've played a lot of rugby with the bloke, and have nothing but respect for him. But we're all of the same mind, the people in this side. When we played Gloucester in the last round, one end of our stadium was completely inhabited by their supporters. That gave them the confidence to throw down the gauntlet by invading our space during the pre-match warm-up. Bad move. I remember thinking at the time: 'Why, oh why, would anyone want to wind us up like this?' When we get a mood on us, we're a pretty useful team."
Just as Volley is a useful flanker of the honest-to-goodness, no-nonsense, in-your-face variety; the Ray Winstone of the loose forward fraternity. No rival openside specialist - not Neil Back or Richard Hill, and certainly not Jonny O'Connor - would dream of taking him lightly, and if one-club dedication means anything at all to the sporting gods, Volley will finish on the winning side tomorrow and take his place at Twickenham next month. Apart from anything else, it would make all those knocks, both physical and emotional, worthwhile.Reuse content