Andrew Sheridan dislikes talking about himself. Loathes it, in fact. "Whatever you say in public has a nasty habit of coming back to smack you in the face," he explained this week. The prospect of anyone or anything smacking England's outstanding World Cup front-rower in the face, or indeed anywhere else, seems a little on the remote side – it is easier to imagine Jason Robinson swearing on daytime television or the All Blacks admitting they were beaten fair and square – but Sheridan is never less than serious on the subject of his own discomfort. If his few words are invariably accompanied by the softest of smiles, do not be fooled. Hannibal Lecter had a soft smile, too.
Prop forwards fall into two categories: there are the "conversationalists", as represented by the 1980s Bath player Gareth Chilcott, who once told the Welshman Dai Young that if he continued to do whatever it was he was doing, he would "live up to his name"; and there are the "Trappists", who include the likes of Sheridan and Julian White, the Leicester tight-head specialist who decided against participating in this tournament. When the British and Irish Lions played the New Zealand Maori in Hamilton during the early stages of the 2005 tour, these two were paired together. Had it not been for the garrulous hooker Steve Thompson, the scrums would have been conducted in monastic silence.
It was in this very game that Sheridan announced himself as a loose-head prop of limitless potential. He reduced the Maori scrum to its component parts – no mean feat, given that his direct opponent was the renowned All Black enforcer Carl Hayman – and was every bit as impressive in the loose. But for a sudden falling-out with the centre Luke McAlister, which concluded with a right cross from the Englishman delivered at some considerable velocity, he might have made it into the Test team. As it was, he made it only as far as the sin-bin. (Both men forgave and forgot long ago, which is probably for the best. McAlister is about to join Sheridan for a stint of Premiership rugby at Sale).
Since the Lions jaunt, consistency has been an issue. In November 2005, Sheridan wrecked the Australian scrum at Twickenham on his first start for England, thereby confirming his position as the senior loose-head practitioner in the country. Disappointingly, this was followed by some too-quiet-by-half performances in the 2006 Six Nations, and when he suffered a couple of serious injuries last season – he broke an ankle while playing a Test against the Springboks, then mangled his knee ligaments barely a month after returning to club duty – there was widespread concern that he would arrive at this tournament some way short of his best.
Those fears evaporated in the heat of Marseilles last weekend, when he set about the Wallabies a second time and made an even bigger mess of their set-piece. Immediately after the quarter-final, he was rather complimentary about the Australians – "They've put in a lot of work on their scrummaging since 2005 and they were definitely tougher as a result," he remarked – but this week, he did not seem so sure. After describing the French, whom he confronts in tonight's semi-final as "honest scrummagers, very direct and physical," he was asked whether he would credit the Wallabies with such honesty. "Oh God, you've got me sweating now," he replied, squirming, before saying: "Look, it took me quite a while to recover from the game, so they must have offered something." Talk about damning with faint praise.
As John Connolly, the Australian head coach, privately admitted, the Wallabies do not possess a prop even a quarter as strong or as capable as Sheridan. Neither does anyone else – not even Argentina or Georgia, nations who venerate their front-rowers in the way the South Africans once did. Nicknamed "Big Ted" by his brethren at Sale, there is something freakish about the 28-year-old from Bromley. In the gym, he has hoisted the best part of 240kg, which very nearly amounts to two Andrew Sheridans. "He has phenomenal strength," acknowledges Nick Johnston, the head of fitness and conditioning at the club. "If he had undergone specific training as a weight-lifter, I have no doubt he would have been capable of winning an Olympic medal." Johnston also says Sheridan's body-fat ratio is down from 20 per cent to 12 per cent. The man is lean, as well as mean.
During his schooldays at Dulwich College, he played in most areas of an embarrassingly dominant forward pack before settling in the second row. Peter Allen, his rugby master, was grateful to have him – "Never before have I seen one player inject so much fear into the opposition and dominate so many games," he admits.
Yet size and strength are only a part of the package. According to those who work most closely with him – Johnston at Sale, for instance, or the new England scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree – it is his attitude that sets him apart. "He takes his game very seriously and wants to be the best he possibly can," Johnston says. "He will often research new techniques on his own and then talk them through with the coaching staff to see if they are worth implementing." And Rowntree? "Andrew is a very strong bloke, obviously, but he's also extremely conscientious," he confirms. "People outside the squad don't see this side to him, but it's there."
Sheridan has a good deal of time for Rowntree, who wore the same red-rose shirt on 54 occasions before retiring last year. "Graham knows all the short cuts, so I can't get away with much," he said. "It's good having him around. He's very thorough in everything he does – he's a careful reader of the game – and he talks my language. It helps that he was playing this game at the top level so recently." Yet he also keeps in close touch with Rowntree's predecessor, Phil Keith-Roach, who was a member of the back-room staff when England won the World Cup four years ago. "We don't meet very often, but we talk things through on the phone. Phil knows a hell of a lot about scrummaging, so much that he can identify the cause of a problem just by listening."
So how has the research been going this week? Pieter de Villiers, the cornerstone of the Tricolore pack since the late 1990s, may not be the fastest thing on two legs – at 35, how could he be? – but the South African-born prop is nobody's idea of a mug when it comes to the close-quarters stuff. What is more, he is one of those born-awkward types, with sharply sloping shoulders that might have been designed to make life impossible for an opposing scrummager of the Englishman's unusual dimensions. "I've put in a reasonable amount of work on him," Sheridan replied. How much? An hour a day? "Oh no, nothing like that. There's only so much rugby a man can watch."
A Jonny Wilkinson or a Steve Borthwick might disagree with that notion – indeed, they might consider it to be rank heresy – but Sheridan has always had a variety of strings to his bow. A keen follower of the country music scene, he plays the guitar with considerable enthusiasm and no little skill. He has been known to dabble in a little yoga (about which he remains silent, which is rather the point), and also keeps half an eye on life after rugby. During his spell at Bristol, the club that recruited him as a second-row forward, tried him as a blind-side flanker – "That idea went out the window pretty quickly," – and then introduced him to the position that has brought him fame and fortune, he signed up for a plumbing course. On moving to Sale he took up bricklaying, and is now the proud owner of a Level 2 NVQ. The Jimmy Page of the breeze block, no less.
During the course of the last five weeks or so, Sheridan has carried a heavy burden. He played full games against the United States, Tonga and Australia – the last of them in blinding heat – and was on the field for all but the last 90 seconds or so in the heavy defeat by South Africa. Only against the Samoans in Nantes was he granted the luxury of a shortish day, leaving the field 11 minutes from the end of normal time with the contest more or less won. He will be expected to perform another full stint against the French this evening. Matt Stevens, the replacement prop, can play on either side of the front row, but he is best equipped to take over from Phil Vickery, the captain, on the tight head.
To his great credit, Sheridan has not asked for a second's rest. A few years back, he had a reputation for being reluctant to play injured. There is no reluctance now. If he ever lacked the warrior spirit, it has oozed from every pore throughout the course of this tournament. Not that he ever talks about such things. He has no need. The smile says it all, as the World Cup hosts will no doubt discover tonight.Reuse content