Why Austin is no longer a wild rover

The jack in the box is vital to Woodward's plans. And there is method in the maverick
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The Independent Online

If Austin Healey was a car he would be a two-seater automatic convertible with leather upholstery, sporty trim, wide aluminium wheels, a large boot and a loud horn. Conversely, if the Sprite was a rugby player, Healey would probably be the prototype. When they made Austin Healey they threw away the keys.

Not so long ago he was known as Motor Mouth. When Saracens made a move to sign him from Leicester, a senior Midlands blazer remarked: "On the record, they'd have to sell their ground to get him. Off the record, they could have the little sod for a couple of quid."

During the Lions tour to South Africa three years ago, a players' court imposed a suitable punishment on Healey. He was bound with black tape, had an apple stuffed in his mouth and was forced to stand in a corner. When he was chosen for his first full appearance for England - against Wales in March 1997 - he was asked what he thought his greatest strength was. "My ability,"he replied.

No one doubts his ability, and this season he has run through his full repertoire with five tries in the Six Nations - he can add to that against Scotland today - including a hat-trick in nine minutes in the second half against Italy in Rome, when he appeared on the right wing, the left wing and in midfield. Given a licence to roam by Clive Woodward, Healey has been in his element. He will be a marked man at Murrayfield, but marking a wing who pops up all over the field is no easy task.

"Clive recognises his flexibility in loose play and Austin can play across the back line," Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, said. "If people are tied up in rucks and mauls he can play at half-back. He likes to be close to the action and he's a bit like Christian Cullen. He has the game to play wing, centre or even full-back."

Healey was a scrum-half until, at 17, Waterloo moved him to the wing. He reverted to No 9 at Orrell, after the retirement of Dewi Morris, and joined Leicester four years ago as a scrum-half. Bob Dwyer signed the Fijian Waisale Serevi and preferred Healey on the wing. When Dwyer was dismissed by the Tigers, who opted for the home comforts of Dean Richards, it was felt that Healey would not have been hanging on to the Australian's leg, pleading with him not to go.

"He has very good physical skills," Dwyer says, "he's very strong, quite quick, has sharp acceleration, is a pretty good kicker out of hand, a good cover-defender and has a high work-rate, all of which adds up to a useful performer. He's been very effective for England in the Six Nations." And this from a man who did not always see eye to eye with Healey.

"There was one day on the training field when I asked him to do something and he... perhaps it's better left unsaid." Spoilsport. "I chose him on the wing," Dwyer added, "because he doesn't play very well with his head down. His decision-making, whether to run, pass or kick, is developing,although there were a couple of wrong options against France. He's got the confidence to beat a player. I quite like his cockiness. That's aninward-looking trait, whereas arrogance is outward-looking and affects other people."

According to Richards, Healey has come of age. "He's matured as a person. Sometimes the other players would bring him down to earth, but they don't need to do it half as much as before. He's a great footballer who would grace any side in the world. His contribution to us has been massive."

So why didn't Healey perform for Dwyer? "Bob is one of the cleverest coaches in the world," Wheeler said, "and if he felt that Austin wasn't making progress or was being disruptive he may have had less patience to get the best out of him. Dean deals with Austin in a different way."

Had Healey made a different decision 10 years ago he might have been playing for Everton. Although he went to a strong rugby school, St Anselm's, the Christian Brothers' college in Birkenhead, he played cricket until he got hit in the face with the ball. He switched to athletics, competing at 100 metres and the pole vault, and also captained the county at football.

"The main problem was that there was no soccer at school and I had to get special clearance," Healey said. "On one occasion I had to lie to the rugby teacher that I was ill so I could play soccer. Like most schoolboys on Merseyside I wanted to be a professional footballer. My heroes were Kevin Ratcliffe, Graeme Sharp and Adrian Heath. I have always been an Everton fan. When I was 15 I had the chance of an Everton trial but I didn't go."

Although Healey played rugby for Cheshire and the north of England, he didn't make it for England Schools at the 18 group. "People tended to select from the best schools. I was told I'd never make it, I was too small. Our coaching structure is appalling. If I'd made it as a footballer I'd have been wealthier, but that's it."

He wouldn't have been on the grand stage going for an historic Grand Slam. For every England player involved in the last World Cup this is the first step to rehabilitation. In that fateful match against New Zealand at Twickenham last autumn, Healey was not only one of the flotsam of players left in the wake of Jonah Lomu's try but when he popped up at scrum-half and fatally hesitated, it led to the clinching score for the All Blacks. Last season also saw the petulant stamp on the London Irish scrum-half Kevin Putt, for which Healey received an eight-week ban.

Since then he has clocked up some impressive miles for club and country. "He's having a very good season," Wheeler said, "and in interviews he's been modesty itself. Sometimes the veneer can be seen through but at least it's there, which was not always the case in the past. It must be difficult not to be confident or even cocky when you have outstanding ability.

"There's an impish side to his personality and he likes to be sharper than the average person. You have to take it for what it is and not get upset by it. It's good for him that he's involved in a team sport like rugby. It 's knocked some of the edges off him."

Not all the edges. Healey, who claims he has never read a book, says: "I particularly admire Prince Naseem and David Beckham because they're at the top of their sports yet people can only find negative things to say about them. I find that very stereotypical of the English. Instead of building up their icons they are more concerned with knocking them down. It's a disgrace they're treated the way they are when they're blessed with the talent they've got. If Muhammad Ali had been English, he would have been called arrogant."

The story is that Healey was named after the sports car and that if he'd been a girl he'd have been called Jensen. "We always assumed his name came from where he'd been conceived," Wheeler said. Whatever, it's possible that Healey has finally got rid of the furry dice.

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