Stephen Myler: Northampton outside-half in a league of his own

He crossed rugby’s great divide and is snapping at the heels of England’s ‘brat pack’. Chris Hewett hears how the No 10 found a new vocation

Saturday 21 February 2009 01:00

The last time Northampton won a league game away from Franklin’s Gardens – a real league game, as opposed to one of the cakewalk variety that marked the Midlanders’ gentle amble through the backwoods of the second division last season – a young stand-off from rugby league country by the name of Stephen Myler was responsible for precisely half their points. It was not, in all honesty, the greatest scoring feat in the history of the union game: Myler kicked a conversion and a penalty for a personal tally of – wait for it – five. But taken together with a try from his partner Mark Robinson, those two goals were enough to see off Leicester on derby day at Welford Road. People have been canonised for less.

At the time, he had played fewer than 20 games of union, and made only one senior start – at outside centre – at Premiership level. Those who witnessed his performance marvelled at his self-assurance, not least because his opponents included Seru Rabeni of Fiji and Alesana Tuilagi of Samoa, two brick-outhouse islanders who had never been in the habit of giving even breaks to suckers. The newcomer might easily have lost his head, in more ways than one. Instead, he found his feet.

Myler spent the rest of that campaign contesting the No 10 shirt with the bewilderingly gifted All Black trickster Carlos Spencer – a little past his best, perhaps, but hardly the worst playmaking pivot in Christendom – and they contested it again throughout last season’s National Division One programme.

They were still eyeball to eyeball before Christmas, but things had been going the younger man’s way for some weeks and Spencer knew it. At the end of last month, the New Zealander left Northampton. Myler might not say so in public, but it was a mighty victory for him.

Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby at Franklin’s Gardens, was, and remains, perfectly happy with the outcome. “There were good signs from Stephen last season, but his work over the last few months has been better than we had any right to expect,” he said this week. “The improvement has been in his all-round understanding, which feeds directly into his game management – the most crucial part of the outside-half’s role. He had all the footballing skills when he first came here: he could spot two-on-ones and three-on-twos in his sleep, because that’s what good rugby league players learn to do from an early age. Now, he’s showing a grasp of the more union- specific elements. What’s more, the team comes first with him. It’s never The Stephen Myler Show. It’s about Northampton winning games of rugby, and nothing else.”

Tomorrow at Wasps, the 24-year-old Myler will run into the 20-year-old Danny Cipriani for the first time. Cipriani is, by a country mile, the most talked-about member of what might be termed Generation X, otherwise known as England’s outside-half brat pack. Until now, he has had three obvious rivals for the rugby nation’s attention: Toby Flood of Leicester, Shane Geraghty of London Irish and Ryan Lamb of Gloucester.

Now, he has a fourth. If the celebrity-soaked Londoner was in any doubt about this, he was put straight when Myler materialised at an England Saxons squad session earlier this month. “Naturally, I’d love to play for my country,” Myler said. “But while I certainly see it as one of my aspirations, I have no intention of being distracted by it. Rugby can be fickle – all sport is fickle – and while it was nice to be recognised by the Saxons, they’ll soon derecognise me if I take my eye off the ball at club level. There are a lot of good 10s out there, which is good: it keeps me honest and humble, it keeps me out of my comfort zone and on my toes. I like the edge it brings to my rugby, but again, the thing that matters is Northampton. This is our first season back in the Premiership. As we all agreed at the start of the season, if we allow ourselves to think about anything other than the good of the club, we’ll come unstuck.” Neither Northampton nor Myler look like falling apart at the moment. The team are safely in mid-table, while their principal points-gatherer is well past the 200 mark for the season in all competitions and is offering something close to a 70 per cent strike rate with the boot. (Few kickers make it into the 80s and stay for long: Jonny Wilkinson’s current 100 per cent record for the season has much to do with the fact that his body failed to survive September). Myler’s specialist coach and philosopher king, Paul Grayson, spends hours ironing out the kinks in his fellow northerner’s technique, and his attention to detail is paying rich dividends.

But then, Myler always had something about him. He was born in Widnes into rugby league aristocracy, if such a thing can be said to exist in that self-proclaimed “people’s game”. Frank Myler, his great uncle, was the last man to captain an Ashes-winning team in Australia – “It happened 14 years before I was born, and while I heard all about it as a kid, for some reason I’ve never seen a moment’s footage of the series” – while Uncle Tony played for Widnes and Great Britain as a stand-off. His father John also knew a thing or two about the 13-man code, playing for Widnes and kicking the best part of 250 goals for them during a successful career.

“League was my life,” said Stephen, who turned professional in his mid-teens and played for St Helens and Salford, as well as his beloved Widnes. “Before moving to Northampton, I’d played only one game of union in my life, at school when I was 12 or 13. What did I think of it? I hated it. In fairness, I don’t think any of us knew what the hell we were supposed to be doing, and things are never much fun when no one sees the point. But I watched a little union on the television, especially the old Five Nations matches, and took some enjoyment from it. I can remember Jonathan Davies coming over to league from Wales and playing for Widnes, just when my dad was packing up and I was hanging around the club, looking for a ball to kick around. Jonathan was a quality player in both codes. I wouldn’t mind achieving the things he achieved.”

So how did his decision to switch codes go down with family, friends and the rugby league public at large? Was it true that he took some stick from the more aggressive 13-a-side aficionados? “There might have been a little bit of that,” he replied, in a tone that suggested he had no intention of discussing the matter further. “As far as the family is concerned, my dad is well into his union now. He watches Northampton whenever he can, while still staying loyal to Widnes. It means he’s out of the house even more than he used to be, so I’m not sure my mum’s too happy with that side of it. They understood that I wanted to take this challenge head on and see what I could make of it. It was a big risk, obviously; recent history proves that the move from league to union is not always an easy one. But the way I saw it at the time, I’d be young enough to go back to league if it didn’t work out for me down here.

“Can I see myself going back? No, not at the moment. But should it happen at some point in the future, I’ll return a more mature, more rounded sportsman for this experience. Some league people dismiss union as slow, but while it might be a little slower at some points during a game, it’s absolutely full on at others. And of course, it’s so multidimensional: there are so many options, so many things to think about. Learning to deal with this aspect won’t do me any harm, will it?”

He is dealing with it well enough at present, and his coaches are in no doubt that he will be a better player come the end of the regular season in late April than he is now. More than one member of the Northampton back-room staff sees a good deal of Grayson in Myler: like his protégé, the former England outside-half kicked beautifully and excelled at a different sport before committing himself to union (football in his case).

Grayson was also adept at using his instinctive awareness to disguise a lack of express pace. If Myler is not the quickest thing on two legs, he is showing encouraging signs of compensating in the same way.

“It’s true what they say,” said Mallinder. “By and large, the most successful recruits from league are those who will wear the bigger numbers on their backs when they move to union: wings and full-backs, primarily. It’s not often that someone like Stephen comes along and proves it possible for a league player to switch codes and perform outstandingly well in a decision-making midfield position.”

Henry Paul tried it, and was good in parts. Iestyn Harris was even more of a curate’s egg. Andy Farrell? The jury is still out, and may never come back in. Myler is the latest man to attempt the feat. If he succeeds, he will be worthy of a place alongside Great Uncle Frank in the family pantheon.

My Other Life

“I love my union and watch a good deal of it: I have to do my homework on opposition players, so I see plenty of film footage. I also keep in close touch with league: I still have a lot of friends involved in the sport, and as it’s a summer game now I get lots of opportunities to watch it live. But it’s possible to see too much rugby, especially when you’ve an interest in both codes, so I need something to get me away from the oval-shaped ball. Golf is my thing. I play off five and I’d like to get my handicap down from there.”

Code of respect: The Myler rugby dynasty

Frank Myler (Great uncle)

Played both the 1960 and 1970 World Cups, the only player of any nation to do so. Also renowned for being the last man to captain Great Britain to an Ashes triumph in Australia.

John Myler (Father)

Kicked 243 goals for Widnes between 1976 and 1988. Went on to become a successful coach, helping to guide St Helens to two Super League titles.

Tony Myler (Uncle)

Another stand-off, played in the famous World Club Championship-winning Widnes side in 1989.

Stephen Myler is currently outkicking contenders for the England No 10 shirt. He has kicked more points this season than Toby Flood, Danny Cipriani, Olly Barkley and Charlie Hodgson, and is fourth in the league’s goal-kicking table.

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