It is rare to find anybody with a good word to say about rugby's interminable season, but Dave Walder is one. After spending three months last autumn with his broken leg in a plaster cast, and five more on the soul-searching path to fitness, the Newcastle fly-half is full of the joys of spring, and looking forward to the summer, too.
If it's Twickenham, and the last Sunday in May, it must be England against the Barbarians, with Walder in the white No 10 jersey. This is the third year of the fixture in this slot, and each time the 25-year-old Newcastle player has, for a variety of reasons - either an impending Lions tour or a clash with club finals - been the man in possession. Last year, when the Barbarians flew in Jonah Lomu on their all-star Jumbo, it was an unexpected romp for England, with Walder collecting 29 of his side's 53 points. In 2001, when Lomu was on better form, the Baa-Baas won 43-29.
Whatever happens this afternoon, with the Baa-Baas fielding a less obviously imposing selection in a ghastly new version of their traditional black-and-white hoops, Walder is chuffed to be back.
It will be his first start since last August, when he fractured his tibia in a pre-season friendly against Edinburgh. "At the beginning of the year, I wasn't expecting to play before the end of the season," Walder said. "Now here I am against the Barbarians, in front of 60,000 people again. If it goes as well as last time, attacking-wise, I'll be happy."
While Jonny Wilkinson moves with swan-like serenity as his country's - and probably the world's - leading fly-half, the activity below the waterline has been furious in England's search for the ideal back-up. Sale's Charlie Hodgson had the nod until his knee injury in March. Otherwise, since Walder played against the Barbarians in May 2001, and kept his place for three Tests in North America the following month, the cast list on the bench or in the A team has comprised Olly Barkley, Andy Goode, Phil Jones, Henry Paul, Alex King and Paul Grayson, with Austin Healey and Mike Catt always possible choices.
A season of more or less doing nothing may only have delayed Walder's advance. Woodward kept in touch by telephone - "We'd always hoped to include Walder in this game," the coach said this week - and three substitute appearances at the last knockings of Newcastle's successful fight against relegation fulfilled the timetable.
The lowest point for Walder, who comes across as having a naturally ebullient attitude to life, was during his initial spell in hospital. "The surgeon walked by with seven medical students," he recalled. " 'Oh, standard break, he won't be playing for between nine and 12 months'. I just lay in my hospital bed, and cried." A fellow patient offered sympathy and a cigarette, and Walder knuckled down to the task of rehabilitation. He spent a month in Australia, visiting his younger brother, and had plenty of chances to watch his beloved Newcastle United.
Now rugby is back on top of the agenda. Walder admits that, after barely an hour of meaningful action for Newcastle - and with Wilkinson around, it has all been at full-back - his lungs are likely to be burning before too long at HQ this afternoon.
Aren't the Barbarians a relatively soft touch? "Apart from when they score from their own line," Walder smiled. "Maybe last year they were a little over-confident. They'll approach this one differently, even if they might have a few beers the night before."
He says his own ambitions extend no further than seeing this match through, and waiting for Tuesday's announcement of separate squads for the summer tour and Churchill Cup. "Alex King and Olly Barkley are playing for Wasps and Bath, so the door's left open for me to show what I can do."
The pecking order is ripe for reappraisal. Walder was vice-captain of England's midweek side last June in Argen-tina, and among his qualities are speed off the mark and accomplished goal-kicking, albeit that he does not practise as obsessively as his club captain, Wilkinson - very few men do. "There's not a single player in this team who is not in contention for the main tour," said Woodward. The World Cup is another matter, but, as Walder will testify, selection can be snatched away in an instant.
Outside him today is a back line full of pace, though with only eight caps between them from 11 to 15. In the pack, the uncapped Alex Brown, Michael Lipman and Chris Jones will naturally lean on the captain, Gloucester's Phil Vickery, against a Barbarian unit led by the former All Black skipper Taine Randell.
The trio of match officials from Scotland may be forgiven a wary glance towards the Barbarians' full-back, Percy Montgomery, who is awaiting a disciplinary hearing in Wales for pushing over a touch judge in the recent Swansea v Newport fixture.
Walder, though, will give a friendly nod to the referee, Iain Ramage, whose 19-year-old son Peter is on the point of signing a two-year contract with Newcastle United. "The football and rugby teams share the same training facilities," said Walder, a season-ticket holder at St James' Park, "and we see their players out and about. I have to stop myself asking Alan Shearer for a hit at golf. Is the ref's son a midfielder? If there are any discipline problems, I might bring up the subject of Lee Bowyer."
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