Austin Healey: 'Lawrence should start on the bench. That's where you put your old-stagers'

Brian Viner Interviews: He doubts the wisdom of selecting Lawrence Dallaglio for England's Six Nations campaign, and reckons Martin Johnson can't punch. The Leicester Lip has mellowed but he is still a master of mischief

Friday 27 January 2006 01:00

The return of Lawrence Dallaglio to England's Six Nations squad is, says Austin Healey, mischief-maker nonpareil, "one of the great media stunts of the year".

Healey chuckles. Not for nothing is he known as the "Leicester Lip", even if the accent is more Wirral than Welford Road. I invite him to elaborate. "I don't know what to say about Lawrence, to be honest," he says, before saying rather a lot. "He's a fantastic player and a great character, but you have to pick on form. I've watched a lot of Wasps games this year, and I don't think Lawrence is playing better than Joe Worsley. Martin Corry is playing well, and Andy Robinson loves Lewis Moody, so there's your back row. Would you have Lawrence on the bench? Probably, yeah. The bench is where you put your old-stagers who can come on and change a game - people like Lawrence, Matt Dawson, Graham Rowntree, and, though he won't like me saying it, Ben Cohen."

Healey offers these thoughts in a corner of a chilly dressing-room at Oval Park, the Leicester Tigers' training ground. I ask whether Dallaglio, in the more august surroundings of the England dressing-room, might bring some useful pre-match dynamism? "There's your problem," says Healey. "There's only room for so many really big characters in that England dressing-room, and if Martin Corry's going to carry on as captain then he needs to be the figurehead people look towards."

His Leicester team-mate, adds Healey, could yet be a Grand Slam-winning captain. "It's basically only England and France who can win it this time, and I suppose the French are slight favourites because they play England in Paris. England's game is very much based on safety first, but to beat France in Paris they will have to take quite a few risks. They'll have to play the French at their own expansive game, move them around a bit. Whether they do is maybe a question of whether they go into that game off the back of two good wins or not."

If Healey were England coach - and there's a thought to make Robinson choke on his muesli - he would not countenance the current talk of playing Josh Lewsey at centre. "I think he suits Wasps' style of play as a centre, but I don't think that would suit England. He's a very good athlete and a fantastic finisher, Josh, but he's not the sort of player who puts other people into space. Someone like [James] Simpson-Daniel, or Stuart Abbott, those guys can create space for other players.

"Besides, if you move Josh from full-back then who else would play there? There's no doubt that the back play was not up to scratch in the autumn [internationals], but [the backs coach] Joe Lydon has had a lot of time to think about how he wants to take the back line forward, and to an extent the players need to take it on themselves. You shouldn't be spoon-fed when you're playing for England; you should say, 'I think we should be doing this, or that'. The problem is that you have a lot of Wasps players in there, a lot of Sale players, and you get a mix of styles, with the players afraid to put forward the style they believe in. I believe that the way Sale are playing is the way England should play."

However England play, Healey will be at all five games "I believing" for the BBC. Of all the recent England internationals now clutching microphones, he is probably the most forthright. Sometimes, poachers-turned-gamekeepers are still on the side of the poachers, but not Healey: all he knows is to do a job properly, and anyone trespassing can expect some buckshot up the backside. "It's been to my detriment that I've done the [BBC] job," he says. "Potentially I could have got back into the squad, but there's too much baggage with me. Andy Robinson believes that I'm in the Leicester changing-room pointing at people and saying, 'You're shit ... you're crap', when in fact the complete opposite is the truth. In my player persona I'm completely embroiled in what the side's doing, and would never do anything to detract from it."

Healey played the last of his 51 games for England way back in 2003, before the World Cup, but he is not fantasising by suggesting that he could have jinked his way back into the squad. Not entirely. After all, he is younger than Dallaglio, younger than Dawson, and younger than Corry. And even more significantly, he is having a hell of a season; it is because he and perhaps three or four others have been on top form that Leicester are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. Indeed, there has been more than a glimpse of the kind of form that made him man of the match when the Tigers, with an epic 34-30 victory over Stade Français at the Parc des Princes, won the Heineken Cup in 2001. Soon afterwards, the Stade top brass offered Healey a lucrative contract, and had his wife not been pregnant at the time we might be having this conversation in a little Parisian bistro rather than on the suburban outskirts of Leicester. Still, Healey has no regrets. A few slight grievances, perhaps, but no regrets.

One of his grievances is that Clive Woodward picked the World Cup squad on 10 September 2003, by which time he had still not fully recovered from the snapped anterior cruciate ligament, sustained the previous April. That he recovered to play top-class rugby at all was a surprise to his surgeon. That he recovered so quickly was astounding. But it wasn't quite quickly enough. Although he was summoned to Australia mid-tournament, Woodward didn't use him. Had the squad been chosen even a fortnight later, he might have been in from the start.

But then, if his surname had been Martin or Jagg, he might have been named after a different vintage car altogether. It's no good dwelling on might-haves, and Healey doesn't. He looks back with pride on his 51 caps, and does not rise to the suggestion that in a way he was too versatile for his own good, able to play with equal flair at No 9, No 10 or on the wing. He rejects the notion that the label "utility back" was, in his case, as much a curse as a blessing.

"I don't know about that. Some players can do different jobs, that's all. Harry Ellis could play on the wing if he wanted to. Clive wanted me to play like that German footballer, is it Günther Meyer?" Günther Netzer, I tell him. But then why should he know; he's still only 32.

"That's it, Netzer. He could do all the jobs he was asked to do, apparently. I didn't have a clue who he was. What does that mean, play like Günther Netzer? But I got the message and appreciated the challenge.

"Clive helped my career a great deal and I've still got a lot of time for him. In fact, I spoke to him after our Christmas do. I'd had a few beers, and I decided it would be good idea to abuse him down the phone a little bit. To be fair he was in a great mood, I think because he knew he'd got the [director of football] job at Southampton."

If Woodward does not succeed in football, Healey thinks it will be football's fault, not Woodward's. "If Clive were a football manager coming to rugby he would be a definite success. Rugby players would respond to him, because they're a lot more responsive to ideas, they take things on board, whereas the impression rugby players have of footballers is that they're not like that. They have too much power. We couldn't tell a coach we're not going to do something for fear of him saying, 'You're dropped'. That's the worst thing that can happen to a rugby player, that they don't play, whereas it seems that the worst thing that can happen to a footballer is that they don't get paid. I know that's a sweeping statement, that they're not all like that, but that's the impression we have."

Healey was himself a decent schoolboy footballer - captain of his county side - and remains a passionate Evertonian. Next year he will get to see a little more of his beloved Toffees because he is returning to his amateur roots as a rugby player, having landed a job, for which he has yet to be trained, as a private banker for Credit Suisse.

I ask him whether he'll be fiddling his expenses; he has admitted before that, at least in his early years playing rugby, he was highly inventive in that department. "Yeah, definitely. But it was different then. I had an expenses form and the trick was how to get it up to £300 to pay off my student loan. When I played with England Students we trained at Bisham Abbey, so I said I'd been on a course in Edinburgh and had driven down. That was worth quite a bit."

A broad grin. Iconoclasm in its various forms looms large in the Austin Healey story; he was fined £2,000 for bringing the Lions into disrepute with his notorious newspaper column during the 2001 tour of Australia, and was at more or less constant loggerheads with the former Leicester coach Bob Dwyer, whom he knew as "Barbed Wire". I'm told, too, that his practical jokes are legendary. What, I ask, was his most memorable?

"I don't think I can tell you." Oh, go on. "OK. I've been sponsored by the local Mercedes garage ever since I've been here, and I got a new car one Friday. Everyone here knew that I went to the cinema every Friday night; most of the lads go as a ritual. So on this particular Friday I came out and my new car was completely covered in shaving foam. You couldn't see a single part of it. I knew who'd done it but I wasn't that bothered. I thought it was quite funny, in fact. Anyway, I managed to get the stuff off the windscreen, but I couldn't get it all off the side-windows, and as I pulled out someone crashed into me because I couldn't see them. I was absolutely fuming. Here was this car not even 24 hours old, and it was all smashed in. I came in the next day and said, 'I'm going to get you back for that'. And I did. After the game, I pooed in his shoes. I thought that made us quits."

The shoes were not, I assume, a pair of size 14s belonging to one M Johnson? "No, Johnno was the sort who'd dish out practical jokes, but not really take them. Mind you, I used to push him over the edge all the time and he used to hit me. Fortunately, he's not the best puncher in the world. They were easy to duck, anyway."

The former Leicester and England captain no longer casts a giant shadow over Oval Park, Healey tells me. "Not really, maybe because in his last season we saw a more natural side of him, the family man, not nearly as intense as he had been. I suppose it's to do with getting older. Me, Backy [Neil Back], Johnno, we were all very intense in the early years, and you see it all round the Premiership, guys like Mike Catt, Will Greenwood, intense guys who've really mellowed out. It happened to me when I became a father; rugby's not the most important thing any more. I'm reading Gazza's book at the moment and I'm like him, I get bored easily. But before, when I didn't have kids, I'd go to the gym or go for a run if I was bored. Now, I have a laugh with the kids. It takes your edge away."

With or without an edge, Austin Healey will be a hard act to follow. I was going to write that his will be difficult shoes to fill, but it didn't seem appropriate, somehow.

Austin Healey will be working for BBC Television throughout the Six Nations Championship campaign

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