Opposites attract the plaudits

Steve Bale
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:13

As Matthew Dawson and Paul Grayson are a club half-back pairing - the 50th such, as it happens, to play for England - there could surely be nothing more natural or obvious than their selection to make their debut together against Western Samoa at Twickenham on Saturday.

This, however, is only partly true. Minds have to be cast back only as far as this time last season, and Northampton's doomed attempt to keep their place in the First Division, to appreciate that a leap of faith in their own abilities as much as anything else has been made by both players.

Dawson, 23, and Grayson, 24, have come to the England team by dissimilar routes, with the common thread spun by Ian McGeechan, rugby director and mentor at Franklin's Gardens. "I have," as he put it, "spent a bit of time with them."

This, remember, is an ex-Lions and Scotland coach who has either seen or done it all. When the Scots' 1990 Grand Slam coach, of all people, says this - "what I'm trying to do is produce players Jack Rowell will be happy with" - you have to pinch yourself as hard as Dawson and, above all, Grayson did after Rowell announced his England selection.

Last season Dawson spent most of his time nursing persistent hamstring injuries, while the hapless Grayson bore the brunt of the widespread criticism of the hopelessly barren rugby which ultimately condemned Northampton to relegation.

They are, strikingly, not two of a kind. Dawson was born to play rugby and went through Royal Grammar School High Wycombe, one of England's premier rugby academies. He was identified at least three years ago as a prospective international scrum-half. Such was his consummate talent as a 20-year- old that Northampton initially found the best use for him in the centre.

Grayson, on the other hand, has a football and cricket background - good enough in the dribbling code to have trials with Preston North End and play semi-professionally for Accrington Stanley in his native Lancashire. His England outside-half selection is the culmination of all of six years playing rugby, the heady climax of which so far was the contribution of his boot to the cup run by Waterloo in 1992-93 which famously accounted for Bath and then Orrell.

According to McGeechan, Grayson's inexperience is at once his greatest asset and greatest liability, though it does mean that when he plays for England on Saturday his mind will be fresh, his ideas unencumbered by a lifetime's rugby theory. "He is a very good sportsman and very skilful," McGeechan said. "But it has probably hampered him in his development that he hadn't been brought up in schools' rugby, didn't have the grounding that someone like Matt Dawson so clearly had.

"On the other hand, I've actually found it a help because he had - has - no preconceived ideas, and so it's been easier than might immediately appear obvious to show him the options and how his performance can affect the way others are brought into the game."

Until Northampton's laying-waste of the rest of the Second Division this season no one outside the club, and perhaps not many inside either, could have imagined Grayson doing much more than kicking the ball huge distances with his footballer's facility. Indeed, to a wider audience, the notion of Grayson as an attacking bright spark in the Andrew Mehrtens mould - McGeechan likes to liken his man with the New Zealander - was more or less unimaginable until Grayson's harmonious combination with Dawson for the Midlands against Western Samoa match 12 days ago.

"It was very hard for him last season but we persevered and can now see the result. You could argue about whether he is exactly a running fly- half or even needs to be but he has come to play a dominant role for Northampton," McGeechan said.

"You look at what Mehrtens did in the World Cup and he was the catalyst for all those around him; even if you weren't saying what a great game he was having, you were saying it about all the rest. This is what Paul can do for the talents of Jerry Guscott, Will Carling, Ben Clarke, Tim Rodber, Lawrence Dallaglio and all the rest.

"He should give Will and Jerry and the back row a lot of running options, but it will not necessarily be because he thinks he has to run. He knows that if he runs himself it has be effective to the point of being devastating. What he is dictating is which players can come into the game and how they do so."

This, it should be noted, is what the Second Division can do for you. However mortified McGeechan may have been to have made the drop, he cannot deny that playing inferior opposition - or playing First Division rugby in the Second Division, as he prefers to style it - has been a liberation, collectively for his team and personally for Grayson and Dawson.

There is no special significance, but it is a curiosity even so, that Dawson's problem, just like his background, was the opposite of Grayson's. Where McGeechan wanted Grayson, the rugby convert, to do more he wanted Dawson, with rugby in his blood, to do less. So it has come to pass.

"When you are not playing regularly you don't get into a rhythm, and with Matt that hampered any progress of any significance. His talent was obvious to me as soon as I arrived at the club but sometimes when you get talented players they try to do too much too often. It is a different kind of confidence to be able to do the right thing at the right time."

Dawson has been compared by Bryan Williams, the Samoan coach, with Nick Farr-Jones no less, and if he develops into anything like the player the great Australian was, then England will have a genius on their hands. Place a version of Andrew Mehrtens outside him and suddenly you have half- backs to die for.

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