Sleightholme's outside chance; FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: England and Scotland powerhouses can impress Lions selectors

Chris Hewett talks to the wing with a mission against Wales tomorrow
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The Independent Online
Jon Sleightholme is very much looking forward to his early summer sojourn in Argentina, where the prospect of two more international caps and a night or three on the Buenos Aires tiles with his Bath club-mates, Federico Mendez and German Llanes, are among the obvious highlights of the trip. What is not so obvious is why England's right wing is, as things stand, likely to board a mid-May plane to South America rather than one to South Africa.

When Fran Cotton and his comrades on the Lions selection panel named their now infamous 62-man preliminary party last month, they chose to disregard England's threequarter line in its entirety. The inevitable slanging match centred on whether or not Will Carling had demanded the captaincy in return for his availability and to what extent Phil de Glanville, the national captain, was omitted because of incompatible personalities rather than indifferent performance levels.

Barely a word was heard on the subject of Sleightholme and his partner on the left wing, Tony Underwood, even though they had just given the Irish back division a fearful seeing-to in Dublin to the tune of two tries apiece. Underwood always looked vulnerable in the light of Cotton's professed partiality towards power freaks rather than out-and-out speed freaks. But Sleightholme? Fourteen and a half stones of get up and go would surely be priceless on the killing fields of Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld, so why should the Lions go for a walking bicep like John Bentley, just back from rugby league and only a handful of games into his reincarnation as a union man at Newcastle, rather than Jack Rowell's favourite wide man?

"We're not picking on size," Cotton insists. "Pace and power are two very important qualities but size is not an issue at all. People probably got that from the Bentley-Sleightholme business. Sleights is a strong sort but Bentley happens to be that little bit bigger. That's not the reasoning behind our current thinking, though; there are other differences we consider to be important."

Now what might they be? True, Sleightholme is not the world's finest at defending against a cultured outside-half's rolling diagonal kicks and he has been known to succumb to the odd rush of blood in dodgy loose- ball situations. But in virtually every other area of his game, whether it be chasing high bombs like a pointer on heat, manufacturing a narrow- channel kick to turn an opponent, tackling some monstrous Lomuesque apparition to a standstill or finishing a half-chance at the corner in true Rory Underwood fashion, he is right up there with the best of British.

Tomorrow, the 24-year-old from way up there on the North York Moors has one last opportunity to book himself in for trial by Springbok rather than Puma. He wins his 10th cap against the Welsh in Cardiff - "No, I've never played at the National Stadium but I've heard plenty about it" - and any addition to his quartet of international tries will be precious grist to the mill, particularly as he will be squaring up to an early Lions contender in Bridgend's Gareth Thomas.

"It's all I can do, isn't it? Play well. Ask questions of the opposition, threaten them when I have the chance and keep it tight and tidy at the back. If it works, if my performance says to the Lions panel, `Hey, we can't leave this bloke out', then fine. But in the end, it's all a matter of someone else's opinion, so I'm not letting it prey on my mind.

"If I don't make it to South Africa, then I'll take every ounce of experience and enjoyment I can from Argentina with the remains of the England side. That will be a tough tour in itself and `Fred' Mendez has promised to look after me and show me the sights, which makes it even tougher. Although I'll chalk up two complete Five Nations' Championships against Wales, I'm still relatively new to this level of rugby and while I'd love to face the Boks, I'm young enough to think about the next tour in three or four years' time."

Such equanimity is a mark of Sleightholme's enviably well-balanced attitude to the slings and arrows of a fickle sport. The merest glimpse of him hollering out the national anthem on big match day, right hand squeezing the fibres from the red rose sewn on the left breast of his precious England shirt, suggests more than a degree of rampant fanaticism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"I think I'm lucky in so far as I can cope with the nerves pretty well and focus totally on the job in hand. I get nervous, of course - very much so in the minutes leading up to a game - but there is no element of apprehension in that, so the feeling is entirely positive. Certainly, the thought of playing at the Arms Park on such an occasion can only be inspirational."

The last time he went anywhere near tomorrow's venue, the rumour mill was humming to suggestions that Bath were about to lose their most effective try-poacher to Cardiff. The English champions' insistence on playing Jason Robinson, a rugby league recruit, on the right wing added fuel to the flames and when Sleightholme withdrew at the last minute from the Heineken Cup quarter-final between the two clubs, the story seemed on the verge of confirmation.

"That's what I mean by staying focused," he says. "You have to rise above all that. I don't know where the rumours came from but I couldn't help but be aware of them, they were so rife. I've had my ups and downs this season, what with selection at Bath and the Lions issue, but the only thing that really matters right now is Wales and how to beat them."

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