Sleightholme on fast track to glory

England's new boy on the wing in Paris today has played only six games for the Bath first team. Tim Glover found him looking forward to the challenge
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The Independent Online
J on Sleightholme eases the car into the driveway of his home in Bath and before he releases the safety belt, his girlfriend Julie rushes out to meet him, arms waving like a windmill in a hurricane. It's 11.30 on a Sunday morning and she's in her pyjamas. Was the kitchen on fire? Had they won the lottery? The news was better than that.

"You're in, you're in," screamed Julie, alerting the entire neighbourhood. She was, of course, referring to the fact that her boyfriend had been selected to play for England against France in Paris. "I thought she meant I was in the England A team," Sleightholme said. "I couldn't grasp what she was saying. She had to spell it out and it still went over the top of my head. I thought, if she's lying I'll kill her. I was so taken aback I didn't know what to say or do."

Given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Sleightholme's promotion (a handful of first-class games this season and an introduction to rugby that defies belief) the 24-year-old's reaction was understandable. Even Julie, while licking her lips at the prospect of a weekend in the Paris Hilton, had her doubts. She received the news in a phone call from a newspaper, thought it was a joke and rang her mother to check the team on teletext.

Over in Montferrand, Philippe Saint-Andre, Sleight-holme's opposite number, was also probably scratching his head. "A lot of people," Sleightholme said, "will be saying who is he? What can he do? The critical eye will be on me so I've got to have a good game. I don't think I will, I know I will. I see it as three challenges. No 1 is playing for England, 2 it's against France and 3 against Saint-Andre.

"I have tremendous respect for him. Not many wings captain their countries. My job is to lead by example. The first time he gets the ball he's got to know he's in a game and not just up against a new cap who's a bagful of nerves. A tremendous amount of faith and confidence has been shown in me."

It was first shown eight years ago by Dave Foulkes, who taught English at the Whitgift school in Grimsby. Sleight-holme, whose mother Denise had been a county sprinter, excelled at athletics and football. He competed in the England schools championships in the 100m and the long jump. Sleightholme was 15 when Foulkes took him along to Grimsby RFC.

"I was hooked by the social side. They stuck me on the wing where they stick all newcomers regardless of size. The first time I ever picked up the ball I saw three blokes running towards me and I just threw the ball into touch. I didn't know the laws but I knew that the game would stop." His family - his stepfather works for Barclays Bank - moved to Hull so Sleightholme was hardly on the fast track.

When he was not supplementing his pocket money at Sainsbury's Home Base - "I learnt a lot of interesting DIY things, not that I'm a DIY person" - he was playing for Hull Ionians and earning a reputation as a try scorer. He took a degree in sports science and history at Chester College and in 1991 joined Wakefield, where he linked up with the England threequarters Bryan Barley and Mike Harrison. "It was a step up and I was learning quickly," Sleightholme said. "Barley is one of England's most underrated centres. He gave me a lot of space."

After three years in Yorkshire he took a postgraduate certificate in PE at Bath University. "Getting into the Bath first XV was the ultimate challenge," Sleightholme said. "I had to battle for it and 18 months later I'm still battling. I was never going to walk in. The competition is intense." Despite the fact that he had been recognised by England at under-21 and A level, he has played most of his rugby for the second team, Bath United.

"You have to challenge for places against international players. It has been very frustrating at times but Bath United are a quality side and you've still got to put in a performance. This season I had a good start, there was good feedback and I got dropped from the first team. I accepted that. By Christmas I was back in." Sleightholme, a teacher at the Culverhay school in Bath, has played in only six League and Cup games, the last in the home defeat to Leicester.

"It's not as many as I would have liked but it means so much to wear the Bath shirt that when you get it you damn well want to keep it. It means a lot to the city, to the kids in school. A lot of respect is given to the Bath players. I'm very lucky. My goal now is to make that England place my own which is very much what I've been trying to do at Bath."

Injuries to Tony Underwood and Ian Hunter have helped to accelerate Sleightholme's progress. Pace (10.5sec for 100m) is his main weapon but he says: "You've got to have the whole package. I've worked hard on every aspect. The day you stand still is the day you fall off the perch. Pace and power is the thing. Just look at the World Cup."

While England were playing Australia in South Africa, England A were travelling on a coach in Sydney having just beaten Australia A. "We were listening on radio," Sleightholme said, "and when Andrew dropped that goal the Australian commentator was dumbstruck. For a few seconds we didn't know what had happened to the bloody ball and then everybody went absolutely ballistic."

There was a similar reaction not only in Bath but in various fishing ports on the east coast to the news of Sleightholme's call. In the Grimsby clubhouse they have already established "Jon's Wall", a little space to display his rugby paraphernalia and he has received messages from Foulkes, the man who started it all, and Chris Dring, his coach at Grimsby. "I'm pretty sure I'm Grimsby's first international," Sleightholme said. "They're the salt of the earth. They bring you down to earth."