Stimpson nears his destination

Paul Trow talks to Newcastle's full-back, on the verge of his England debut
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The Independent Online
WHEN, not if, Tim Stimpson is selected at full-back for his country, he will be widely expected to solve a positional problem which has plagued England for quite a few seasons. Since he played his first game as a four- year-old, his rise through the ranks has been both inevitable and unspoiled by hiccups like West Hartlepool's failure to win a League match last season.

During his schooldays in Wakefield, the tall (6ft 3in), powerfully built (15st7lb) Stimpson was placed on the fast track which the Rugby Football Union created to develop their talented youngsters long before the advent of professionalism. "I've been lucky that throughout my career I've been very well coached," said Stimpson, who also had some help along the way from his father, Jeff, a former centre with Liverpool St Helens.

He has been capped at virtually every level: 16 Group, 18 Group, Under- 21, Students and A team. Now, the 23-year-old Newcastle full-back is on the threshold of his full England debut against Italy at Twickenham on Saturday, 23 November.

The decision by the England coach Jack Rowell to switch Mike Catt, last season's full-back, to his pool of fly-halves effectively leaves Stimpson, an ICI training officer in his spare time, in pole position with Nick Beal of Northampton as his only rival.

"I don't think 'I'm going to be picked for England' whenever I play," he said. "As I've done throughout my career, I simply go out to do my best."

Nevertheless, the Durham University anthropology graduate is cautiously preparing for the England experience. "Every game is an opportunity. It will be my responsibility to make sure I use it. I want to express myself, take on my opposite number and avoid getting into a comfort zone or being overawed."

Playing in an unsuccessful side certainly did not overawe Stimpson last season. On the contrary, he blossomed amid the chaos around him, using his long stride to run in a string of solo tries and slotting dozens of place kicks.

"We had a great team spirit at West Hartlepool but we were out-gunned most of the time. We didn't have the fire-power to compete with the best sides and we tended to flag towards the end of games. I became captain and even though it was a big challenge, I thought we did quite well all things considered."

Towards the end of last season, Stimpson switched to Newcastle where Rob Andrew, courtesy of Sir John Hall's financial might, was assembling a high-class squad with the specific brief of earning promotion from Courage League Two this season. It goes without saying that the move has worked for Stimpson. "I'm playing in a team packed with international stars. I am just one guy in a great team. They are more powerful, more dynamic than West Hartlepool and when we all get to know each other better, we'll play even more to each other's strengths. It's definitely making me a better player. How can playing with Rob Andrew and Tony Underwood not make me better?"

The prospect of the Newcastle side which hammered Rugby 156-5 a fortnight ago getting even better once this extra familiarity is established is mind-boggling. "It was not that Rugby were a bad side," insists Stimpson. "We just had too much power and too many runners."

Newcastle's impressive form is giving him plenty of scope to come into the line and run with the ball, but most of his defensive work is being done in training. One area which he is working on is place-kicking. Andrew has been Newcastle's main kicker this season, but Rowell reportedly has asked for Stimpson to be given some match practice.

"I am working hard in training with Rob and Dave Aldred, the best kicking coach in the world. We create pressurised situations in practice so it's like kicking in front of crowds," he said.

The crowds may be a bit bigger these days, but when you've played in front of spectators since you were four, you should be able to handle the pressure.