When Joe Lydon toured Zimbabwe with the England Under-19s in 1982 he had already agreed to switch codes and play for Widnes. "It was all arranged but at that point I hadn't taken any money," he said.
On his return from southern Africa, where England won seven matches out of seven, Lydon, at the age of 18, left St John Rigby School and declared himself a rugby league professional, as did eight team-mates who played the 15-a-side game in Wigan. "In those days we used to play union on Saturdays and league on Sundays. When you got to 18 it was time to make a decision."
In those days the very mention of professionalism within earshot of Twicken-ham would reduce the Red Rose blazers to a state of apoplexy, and had the Rugby Football Union had a whiff that young Lydon was to represent England while planning to take the rugby league shilling, he would have been blackballed from Land's End to John O'Groats. Fortunately, times change, and such prejudice is as outdated as cigarette-card heroes.
Last week Lydon, a prominent member of the England coaching hierarchy, sat next to Andy Robinson at a Press conference, both men having gained promotion following Sir Clive Woodward's sudden departure. "I used to have a saying on my wall that choice not chance determines destiny, but now I believe in both," Lydon said. "So many things have happened that I didn't envisage. I never thought for one second that I'd be in this position. Sitting next to Andy at the top table was an enjoyable experience. The only advice he gave me was not to be late."
From 1982, when he went from playing in Harare to Hunslet, to 2000, Lydon enjoyed a great league career. He played in most positions in the back line, and when he stopped playing he became the performance director of the Rugby League, responsible for what was termed "world-class planning". What he didn't plan for, however, was a move back to union.
"We were looking into Lottery funding, which brought me into contact with David Shaw of the RFU, and more by chance than design one thing led to another, and I was offered a new challenge. It was a massive move, although I didn't see it as a risk."
Eighteen years after playing for them, Lydon became coach of the England Under-19s for a couple of seasons, then applied for the coaching job of the national sevens squad. "I was lucky to get it against a lot of experienced people. I admit that at one time I didn't know the difference between a tighthead prop and a loosehead, but you learn. In rugby of whatever description, people are always happy to offer advice if you want it.
"In a way, not having a union history has helped me. I'm able to ask naïve, almost stupid, questions that may lead to another way of approaching things. I'm not programmed to thinking a certain way, and I don't have to be careful about looking for solutions."
Lydon, who lives in Mellor, between Preston and Blackburn, still watches league, although most weekends he and Robinson are burning rubber to cover the Zurich Premiership. Last week they were in Cardiff for the Wales v South Africa Test, and before England play the Springboks at Twickenham next Saturday Lydon will have every angle of the tourists' performances covered on video. The fact that the two countries are again drawn together in the same group in the World Cup makes the fixture even more appealing. There was bad blood between them at Twickenham a couple of seasons ago, when the Boks conceded 50 points and a lot of goodwill, since when both sides have undergone a transfusion.
"The game between Wales and South Africa was strange," Lydon said. "The Springboks started very well, but I'm not sure whether they eased off or Wales deserved to get so close. Wales never stopped chipping away, and they did some very good things. The speed of South Africa's counterattacks was impressive, but when they made changes towards the end they took the pace off the game. After winning the Tri-Nations they have confidence and ability, and they're going to present a terrific challenge to us."
Lydon's involvement in sevens coincided with considerable success for England, but he acknowledges that in some respects the "L" on his tracksuit stands for learner. "There's not really much comparison between union and league. The pitches are the same size, the ball's the same shape and that's about it. League can be simplistic, and generally you can predict who will be where. In union, after three or four phases you could have a prop popping up at centre. It is more subtle, more complex. Everything, as Michelangelo pointed out, is interconnected."
Lydon, who will be 41 on 26 November, says he has benefited from working with the more experienced England players, including Jonny Wilkinson, who has been at the training camp even though he is injured. "Nobody has said this is how it's going to be. It's far more democratic than that, and we arrive at decisions together. In any case there are people in the squad who are also their own coaches. They know the game better than I'll ever know it. They can say to me, 'No, that won't work' and together we'll solve it. I'll buy into how they want to play.
"Creativity is hard to define. It's more of a mindset. I want to give players the opportunity to perform with style based on the fundamentals of work rate, fitness and taking opportunities, and with freedom comes accountability."
Lydon would like it known that his brother John, who used to be a full-back for Orrell and Waterloo, is not to be confused with the former Sex Pistol who is currently going ape on television. "Lydon is an Irish name," Joe said. "My grandfather was Irish and I once played rugby league for Ireland in America." The mind boggles. Jason Robinson, full-back and captain, Henry Paul at centre, Phil Larder, the defence coach, and now a man whose name was once synonymous with a game that, once upon a time, might as well have been played in another country. The ghosts of Twickenham must be wondering whether it's all a dream.Reuse content