Young, injury-free and sure of his optimum role in the union game - all the things poor Andy Farrell cannot claim to be - Chev Walker, the latest cross-coder to surf his way out of rugby league and into a top-flight Premiership club on a wave of Twickenham money, was formally unveiled by Bath yesterday. With Andy Robinson, the England head coach, sticking to him like a limpet, the former Leeds Rhinos back said all the right things in all the right places and seemed entirely at home in his new surroundings. Wonders will never cease.
"I'd back Andy Farrell 100 per cent in any position because I know what a great rugby player he is, but in the end, his situation is not my situation," Walker said of his elder and better, a league legend currently struggling to make sense of life at Saracens after a year of injury hassle and two embarrassing months' worth of positional argy-bargy between club and country. "I've never played a game of union in my life, so I'm here to learn. There is no time scale - just a personal challenge of the kind I've never set myself before. I can't say when I'll be ready to play, because it's not up to me. All I can do is study hard, work hard and try to justify my decision to switch codes."
Robinson, a principal move and shaker behind this joint-finance arrangement between the Rugby Football Union and his former club - the kind of deal that brought Jason Robinson, Henry Paul and Farrell to union, with varying degrees of success - sees Walker as a natural outside centre. At the moment, this is the way that the acting head coach of Bath, Steve Meehan, sees it too. So far, so straightforward. It may be that Walker will take an inordinate amount of time to challenge the best of the young union-raised No 13s, Mathew Tait of Newcastle and Jack Adams of Gloucester. It may be that he races past them in no time at all. But at least he has the advantage of knowing precisely what he is trying to achieve. Unlike some.
"Chev has made a big call in coming to union, but I'm delighted to see him in our game," the England coach said. "He has a lot of learning and developing to do, but he has tremendous pedigree as a rugby player and he's committed to making this work. Those are the important things as far as I'm concerned, and I'd like to think that when England get to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, he'll be involved. He understands his position. He won't be selected for England because of what he achieved in rugby league, but because of what he does from now on, here at Bath." Quite who plays at outside centre against the All Blacks at Twickenham on Sunday week remains a mystery, especially as the gifted Tait is struggling for fitness once again. Fresh back from a medium-term injury that left him kicking his heels for much of the early autumn, he is now suffering from a torn thigh muscle. Robinson's information was that he would be "right for New Zealand", but there has to be a question mark. Should he pull out, a second Newcastle centre, Jamie Noon, would be favourite for the No 13 shirt, with either Josh Lewsey of Wasps or the uncapped Anthony Allen of Gloucester in the inside position.
The coach insisted yesterday that "decisions were still there to be made", and that evidence from this weekend's European activity would be taken into account. Those with something to prove at Heineken Cup level include the Sale prop Andrew Sheridan, who starts against the under-powered Italians of Calvisano at Edgeley Park tonight. If he fails to impress, the former Leicester loose-head specialist Perry Freshwater, currently playing in France with Perpignan, will get the nod.
If Robinson expected his most influential player, the outside-half Charlie Hodgson, to be spared the rigours of a full run-out this close to the New Zealand game, the Sale hierarchy disabused him of the notion by including him in the side to face Calvisano. Magnus Lund, a back-row option for next weekend, also starts, but the second-row forward Chris Jones is on the bench and gets a rest of sorts. Mark Cueto, meanwhile, is out of commission. The right wing, one of England's stone-cold certainties if fit, needs more time to recover from the ankle injury he suffered during the Heineken Cup defeat at the Ospreys a week ago.
Wales, who play Australia in Cardiff a week tomorrow, will not know until late in the day if they can select Brent Cockbain, the Ospreys lock. Cockbain was cited for an alleged stamping offence against Sale and appears before a disciplinary tribunal in Dublin on Tuesday.Reuse content