Worsley primed for the time of his life

For club and then country a mouthwatering month will be the proving ground for a maturing talent
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During the height of the England players' strike a few years ago Joe Worsley was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the lobby of the five-star Pennyhill Park Hotel he ordered a smoked-salmon sandwich, just as an incandescent Clive Woodward (pre-knighthood) walked past. Woodward instructed a startled waiter to forget the order. There would be no refreshment for the strikers.

During the height of the England players' strike a few years ago Joe Worsley was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the lobby of the five-star Pennyhill Park Hotel he ordered a smoked-salmon sandwich, just as an incandescent Clive Woodward (pre-knighthood) walked past. Woodward instructed a startled waiter to forget the order. There would be no refreshment for the strikers.

In those days Worsley was a fringe member of a squad that contained the back row of Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, the upper crust. How times have changed. For his next stay at Pennyhill, Worsley could order caviar for a mid-afternoon snack and the England management would be happy to serve on him hand and foot.

Hill is injured, and Dallaglio and Back have retired from international rugby, although there is talk of the latter making a comeback. At the age of 27 Worsley is very much in the right place at the right time. Andy Robinson, Woodward's successor as head coach, needs all the Worsleys he can get.

The two men have been working together on and off for 10 years and Worsley says he is delighted that Robinson has been promoted, although he does not have a clue how England, or indeed which England, will approach the forthcoming Tests against Canada, South Africa and Australia.

"It's going to be such an interesting Autumn series for a number of reasons," Worsley said. "I don't know who Robbo is going to pick or whether he is going to change the way England play. We haven't got down to the nitty-gritty yet."

For Robinson, the latest injury to Jonny Wilkinson is a big pain in the arm. As Worsley points out there aren't many contenders to take over the captaincy. "It looks as if a new generation is coming through, particularly in the pack where there aren't many experienced players available. We need somebody to step up to the plate to take things forward, but there aren't many natural leaders about. Phil Vickery would be an obvious candidate, but will he be fit? Will Greenwood is another but his position may be up for grabs. Jason Robinson could be the answer. He's making a good job of captaining Sale, he's been there and done it and the players would respect and listen to him."

Had Matt Dawson not chosen his role as captain of a team on A Question Of Sport ahead of an England training session, he would have been high on Andy Robinson's list. Dawson, a former England captain, will probably not be reconsidered for reselection until the Six Nations' Championship.

Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who has been phenomenally successful at Wasps since Ireland dispensed with his services, has made any number of shrewd signings, but the recruitment of Dawson in the close season from Northampton has a touch of the Midas about it. Not that Gatland had a premonition that Robert Howley would fail to recover from the operation to his wrist.

"Matt has done a thoroughly professional job," Worsley said. "He's just got on with it and has fitted in very well. Some of the guys weren't sure what to make of him at first - they thought he might be a bit vocal - but he has done it properly and they've taken to him."

It was Howley's extraordinary try that enabled Wasps to dumbfound Toulouse in the final of the Heineken Cup at Twickenham last May, and a week later they returned to the stadium to deny Bath in the final of the Zurich Premiership. The sponsors, incidentally, have decided they have had enough of a good thing after eight years, although they will sponsor the Lions in New Zealand next year.

It was a trophy double to die for and Worsley gave the impression that his body was on the line on both momentous occasions. "Beating Toulouse was a high point but I don't believe we were given the credit we deserved. Toulouse played some staggering stuff, but they had to because we were so effective at killing their power game."

If anybody was entitled to a summer off it was Worsley. Instead he reproduced that form for England in the Tests against New Zealand and Australia. "I was so battle hardened the England coaches could have asked me to do anything and I wouldn't have thought twice. It had been a massive season, what with the World Cup, the Six Nations and the club competitions and I felt pretty light-headed by the end of it all. When you play in the face of adversity and see people react under stress... it is games like that on which a player is judged."

Worsley was at Bath last week when Wasps, missing 10 international players, pulled off another unlikely victory and today they begin their defence of Europe, at home to Biarritz. The clubs met in a pre-season friendly in France. "They won convincingly," Worsley said. "But we put out a young team. I could see how good Biarritz are and this is going to be as hard as it gets. Our gameplan is simple. We are direct and physical and have a great defence. It works because of our physical conditioning and a coaching structure that enables people to slip into the team without too much disruption."

Biarritz have signed Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille while Wasps welcome back the England wing Josh Lewsey. The prop Craig Dowd, who has also been a long-term casualty, will have a fitness test this morning. Phil Greening will be at hooker after Trevor Leota nearly lost an ear in a second-team match against Oxford University. Leota is recovering from plastic surgery. "He already had a cauliflower ear and now it looks absolutely horrific," Worsley said.

At least Wasps are at full strength in the back row with Worsley at six, Dallaglio at eight and Johnny O'Connor on the open side. When he changes the black of Wasps for the white of England Worsley would like to wear No 8. "The public perception is that I have always been in the shadow of Lawrence. The only way to have remedied it was to leave Wasps but I couldn't live with that."

The world is now Worsley's oyster... or even smoked salmon should he feel peckish at the England hotel.

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