Warrior's heart beats strongly at England's epicentre

lnjuries have limited his international opportunities, but today Gloucester's Mike Tindall relishes a return to Red Rose duties against Australia in a new position at inside centre

The rugby heart is a different matter altogether. There is no grey area here, no debate as to whether or not it will function. A player blessed with the warrior spirit always performs as if his life depends on it; a player armed with the competitive soul of a gerbil can never pretend otherwise. Happily for England, Mike Tindall falls squarely into the former category.

Indeed, Andy Robinson, the national coach, fondly refers to him as "the heartbeat of the team", and it is a mark of such creatures that they reach their optimum height and punch their full quota of pounds and ounces when the circumstances are at their most demanding.

It says something about Tindall that his most complete performance in an England shirt - his opinion, as well as that of everyone else - was delivered in the World Cup final against Australia on that night of nights in Sydney, 10 days shy of two years ago. Not that he has had much recent opportunity to improve on it. When he takes the field against the same opponents at Twickenham this afternoon, it will be his first appearance in the white shirt for 12 injury-blighted months. The Red Rose army's adversaries that day? The Wallabies. Who else?

"I've seen a fair bit of them since I won my first cap," agreed the 27-year-old Yorkshireman this week. "They're hard work, aren't they? When you play Australia, you never feel comfortable somehow; you never get away from them, no matter how well you feel you're playing, or how badly they might appear to be struggling.

"The only way to approach it is to stick your foot hard on the pedal from the start and keep it there, all the way to the finish. Even then, they're dangerous. People say they're weaker than usual on this tour, that they've left too many good players behind. But look at their backs. Even without people like Stephen Larkham and Clyde Rathbone, you can count the top players on your fingers: Latham, Rogers, Tuqiri, Giteau. They're always difficult. It's in their make-up."

Unfortunately, it is in Tindall's make-up to do himself a mischief at precisely the moment he could most do with staying in one piece. This has cost him a couple of Lions tours as well as 20-odd caps for his country - caps that might have seen him challenge Will Carling as England's most decorated centre - and as a result, he is as unfulfilled as any player in possession of a World Cup winner's medal could possibly be.

Micro-fractures in a thighbone, no less, cost him a possible place on the Lions trip to Wallaby country in 2001. Last summer, when the British and Irish collective travelled to New Zealand, he would definitely have been involved, but for an orthopaedic conspiracy in which ankle, foot and shoulder were all implicated. Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach, gave him every opportunity to declare himself fit, but despite the substantial amounts of grit and determination contained in his northern genes, he could not, in good conscience, travel under false pretences.

"There was, I suppose, a faint possibility that I might have recovered enough of my fitness to play a part at some stage of the tour," he revealed, "and I was grateful to Clive for keeping me in mind. But realistically, it would have been a bad decision for both of us had I taken the chance. It was only when I started training properly during the summer that I realised how far off the pace my various problems had left me.

"In 2001, when circumstances prevented me putting my name in the hat, I may or may not have been selected. This time, I definitely had a chance, and I was bitterly disappointed at missing out. I suppose you could say it was the sour cream on top of the injury."

One way or another, the first six months of this year were rotten to the core. Frustrated by his latest incapacitation, Tindall also found himself on the painful end of a falling-out with Bath, the club he had joined after playing in a couple of cup finals for Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield, a shortish hop from his native Wharfedale. Having spent eight productive seasons at the Recreation Ground, where he spilled more of his fair share of blood for the cause, he anticipated a generous extension to his contract. Instead, a notoriously Scrooge-like management kept the padlock on the wallet. The negotiations were more public than Tindall would have preferred, the outcome negative in the extreme. In the event he cut his losses and accepted an offer from Gloucester.

"Actually, the move has been really good for me," he said. "We've played some up-and-down rugby at times but we're winning matches, and anyway, when you've been on a downward spiral for as long as I have, it's enough simply to be out there, injury-free. I'm not where I want to be in terms of peak fitness by any manner of means, but I'm really tuned in mentally. Much of that is down to the novelty of playing in a new environment and mixing with new people, many of them youngsters with stacks of talent. After two years of knackeration, anything would be a boon. But really inventive players like James Simpson-Daniel and Henry Paul make it extra-special."

All this seems rather incestuous when placed in the England context. When the Wallabies came a-tapping at Twickenham's door this time last year, Tindall could be found in his customary position of outside centre, with Paul performing the inside role. (Paul was substituted with barely a quarter of the game gone, and his partner found himself taking the goal-kicks as well as tackling every Australian who ventured into his orbit). Nowadays, the England coach, Andy Robinson, sees Simpson-Daniel as a live outside-centre option - he has been packed off back to Kingsholm to learn his new trade, having spent the vast majority of his career on the wing - and has recast Tindall as the new Paul. Confusing? You could say.

Just how easy is it for an experienced Test hand to reinvent himself in a must-win match like this one? "As a matter of fact," Tindall replied, "I played nearly all my schools rugby at 12 rather than 13 until I reached England age-group level. I played there on the odd occasion with Bath, too, so I'm not a complete stranger to the position.

"Does the move worry me? Not at all. As top-level rugby develops, you tend to practise an increasingly wide range of skills as a matter of routine. There are differences between the two roles, particularly defensively, where a shift from outside to inside means fewer side-on tackles and more front-on hits. Basically, you get it in the face a bit more. Still, I'm used to that, as you can tell from my features."

This is Tindall to a tee: teak-tough and affable in equal measure, honest as the day is long and profoundly disinterested in the dictates of self-preservation. If he darkened his hair and took up residence at the rear of the Red Rose scrum, he could be Martin Corry incarnate. The England captain and his back-line lieutenant are cut from the same cloth, and should the shop-soiled world champions emerge from their autumn business with a fresh gleam about them, the leadership qualities of their senior players will have been a central element in the transformation.

"It's just awesome to be back in the thick of it," he said. "I love my club rugby as much as anyone, but the international game is a massive part of a player's career and I've missed it like hell." Missed what, exactly? The unrealistic expectations of the super-smug Twickenham crowd, who tend to assume victory rather than yearn for it? The pre-match circuses, the after-match savagings, the third degree from the fourth estate? After a year away from it, some players would miss the international game in the way a mouse misses vivisection.

"Thinking about it, I've missed the whole thing," Tindall responded. "I love the thought of playing in front of 75,000 people and millions watching on television; I love the nerves and the adrenalin. Basically, I've missed the day - getting out of bed on match morning; walking off the bus and straight into the crowd, who always seem to be there the moment you stop in the car park; running out of the tunnel into that fantastic noise. And the winning, of course. I've missed that."

No wonder Robinson places such store by him. If Tindall felt the absence of an England dimension to his career, England felt the absence of their most dependable, least ostentatious midfielder a whole lot more.

His new position ensures he will be heavily involved in whatever happens this afternoon. He may not be the most sophisticated act in town but when it comes down to temperament, as Test rugby so often does, it is difficult to think of a single soul better suited to life at the epicentre.

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