Worsley ready to step from the shadow of a giant

Lawrence Dallaglio's retirement has left a hole at the heart of the England team. Chris Hewett talks to the 17-stone Wasp who must replace the irreplaceable
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The Independent Online

Little more than three weeks ago, Joe Worsley materialised without warning from the back end of beyond to prevent a certain score by the Llanelli Scarlets three-quarter Salesi Finau - a veritable tank of a man constructed along the same lines as his native Tonga - and earn Wasps, the champions of Europe, a notable pre-season victory at Stradey Park. This was entirely characteristic of the best defensive player in England. A fortnight ago at Twickenham, Worsley botched a simple last-minute overlap, thereby costing his side a Premiership win over Saracens. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this was typical, too.

Little more than three weeks ago, Joe Worsley materialised without warning from the back end of beyond to prevent a certain score by the Llanelli Scarlets three-quarter Salesi Finau - a veritable tank of a man constructed along the same lines as his native Tonga - and earn Wasps, the champions of Europe, a notable pre-season victory at Stradey Park. This was entirely characteristic of the best defensive player in England. A fortnight ago at Twickenham, Worsley botched a simple last-minute overlap, thereby costing his side a Premiership win over Saracens. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this was typical, too.

It would be stretching a point to describe Worsley's career as one precariously constructed on the shifting sands of inconsistency. Coaches generally know what they can expect from the 27-year-old flanker, and almost always like what they get. On a weekly basis, Worsley moves mountains with his multiform tackling - the full-frontal smash, the covering wrap-up, the surface-to-air rib-rearrangement. His performance against Toulouse in last season's Heineken Cup final was in the "something else" category, and he followed up this trophy-winning effort with some excellent displays in the red-rose cause on the painful summer tour of the Antipodes.

But he does have his odd moments and occasional madness: against France in Paris in 2002, when his bread-and-butter skills failed to survive examination by the craftily competitive Fabien Galthié; against Uruguay in the 2003 World Cup, when any designs he might have had on the "Diplomat of the Year" award went west when he applauded the England supporters in Brisbane while heading for the sin-bin after a head-high tackle on some poor, unsuspecting lightweight from Montevideo. If his aberrations are few in number, they can be grand in scale.

And right now, England cannot afford them. Why? Because they need Worsley to fill a gap the size of a Himalayan crevasse left by his club colleague and long-time guv'nor, Lawrence Dallaglio. Heaven knows, Dallaglio made a few errors of judgement during his international career, but his contribution on a game-by-game basis was immense. Unless Andy Robinson, the acting head coach of the national team, succeeds in identifying and shaping a replacement for this unique force of sporting nature, the Springboks and the Wallabies will pillage Twickenham in November. It is to Worsley that he is most likely to turn.

"This is an interesting time to be a part of the England set-up," the 17-stone Londoner said this week, during a break between a heavy weights session and a fast-and-furious rugby session at his club's training ground in Acton. (The Wasps players do not always go from gym to pitch and back again. Wrestling and tug-o'-war are also components of an unusually imaginative fitness regime). "Which way will it go, without Lawrence, without Clive Woodward? I haven't a clue, quite honestly, and the same goes for every player I've talked with over the last 10 days or so. Will Andy tweak everything just a little, or change a few things completely?

"There are bound to be some differences in the way we prepare; Andy and Clive worked together for years, but I don't suppose for a moment they always agreed with each other. It will be fascinating to see how things develop from here on in."

Like Dallaglio, the younger Wasp is a multi-purpose loose forward; like Dallaglio, he has a clear preference for the No 8 role. "I'd love to play there for England," he confirmed. "The problem is one of practice. To perform successfully in the No 8 position, you need to spend time there - and Lawrence plays there at the club. I don't see it as an insurmountable obstacle, because there are clear differences between the way we do things at Wasps and the way the England back row operate, but I can't say how other people see it."

Since Worsley came off the bench for his international debut against Tonga in the 1999 World Cup, much has been said and written about effects of his close association with Dallaglio. There was an obvious teacher-pupil element to the relationship in the early days, but by the time Worsley established himself as a going concern on the England front, he wanted to be seen in his own light, as what Neville Cardus memorably described as "the full man himself".

The popular assumption is that Dallaglio's retirement from international rugby leaves the way clear for Worsley to assert himself in his captain's stead. But in truth, Worsley has considered himself a wholly mature and independent player for several seasons.

"Once I broke into the England set-up, I don't think I ever felt I was in Lawrence's shadow, and there has never been any suggestion of it in our dealings with each other," he said. "But equally, I always understood that the perception was out there. Lawrence is such a big figure in the public eye, and at one time I thought about leaving Wasps because I felt it was affecting me in terms of the impression people had of the situation. But in the end, I couldn't bear to walk away from the club. A lot of players stay here for good. It's that sort of place."

If Worsley has yet to develop the air of authority that even now separates Dallaglio from lesser mortals, he frequently matches the great man's energy and commitment. A week after producing that masterpiece of defensive brilliance against Toulouse - "It was a high point, definitely, and I don't believe we were given the credit we deserved; Toulouse played some staggering stuff, but they played with such extravagance only because we were so effective at killing their power game" - he was up with the Gods again as Wasps retained the domestic title with a narrow victory over Bath. Somehow, he then summoned again the furies for the Tests against New Zealand and Australia.

"I was so battle-hardened - and probably battle-weary, as well - that the England coaches could have asked me to do anything and I wouldn't have thought twice," he said.

"It had been a massive season, what with the World Cup and the Six Nations and the club competitions, and I felt pretty light-headed by the end of it. Even though we lost - and believe me, I hate defeat more than anything - I enjoyed the matches, especially when Simon Shaw was sent off in Auckland and we were down to 14 blokes.

"It was frustrating, that match, because I felt we had the winning of it when we were up to strength. But there was also a freedom about it, playing in the face of such adversity and seeing people react fantastically under duress. In my view, it is in games like the Eden Park Test that a player is judged."

Worsley was judged that day, and emerged with reputation enhanced. "I certainly came back full of confidence," he agreed. "I'm more relaxed about my rugby now, more calm in my own mind. I used to be terribly nervous before big matches, to the point of physical sickness. It reached the point where I loathed the build-up, from the night-before stuff right through the morning of the game. Half of it was the prospect of putting your body through such extreme demands, half of it was the fear of having a complete bummer and letting people down. I would get myself in a shocking state. Thank God I handle it better now.

"There again, I can still get down about things. The week after that World Cup match with Uruguay was the worst I can remember. I felt really dumb about the incident when I was heading for the sin-bin; it was a completely innocent thing between the supporters and myself and had nothing to do with arrogance, but it looked bloody awful. And on top of that, I was out of the 22 for the business end of the tournament and knew I wasn't going to feature in the final. On the big day, the whole squad was together as one - there was an amazing 'let's do it' spirit amongst us. But not being involved left a big hole in me, even so. I would have given anything to have been out there on the pitch.

"Thankfully, there's another World Cup left in me. I want to be part of a winning Lions team next summer, too. This is an exciting time to be involved at international level. Everything is there in front of me; it's up to me to make it mine."

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