The strange case of Mathew Tait, still being heard in the court of rugby opinion five years after the opening statements, is finally reaching its conclusion, with a verdict expected any day now.
It might even be delivered as early as this evening, after the Six Nations meeting between England and Ireland at Twickenham. Foremost among the sport's many either/or players – some dismiss him as an overrated lightweight, others celebrate him as nothing less than the saviour of the red-rose back division – his performance against Brian O'Driscoll, the finest outside centre of the age, could reveal him as one thing or the other, once and for all.
If, by some peculiar happenstance, the O'Driscoll test fails to establish the truth of the matter, another crucial piece of evidence is likely to be presented three weeks hence, when England visit France and Tait finds himself standing toe to toe with the unusually formidable Mathieu Bastareaud, whose toes are approximately the size of the 24-year-old northerner's forearms. Should Tait find a way of prospering against both the Dubliner and the Parisian, he will surely provide the national selectors with a cast-iron argument for building their attacking game around him.
Softly spoken and almost painfully shy – he has a nice line in dry wit, but its self-deprecating quality tends to confirm his critics in their mistaken suspicion that he lacks confidence – Tait would not blow his own trumpet if it were the only instrument left in the orchestra. Asked about his decisive contributions to England's recent victories over Wales and Italy (a Jeremy Guscott-like run, followed by an Austin Healey-esque flick pass, for the wrap-up score in the first match; a broken-field glide for the only try in the second), he says simply: "It was nice to play two games together. I'm quite happy with the way things have gone, but a little frustrated too. I'd like to get my hands on the ball a bit more."
He is more forthcoming on O'Driscoll, a maestro of a midfielder against whom he is keen to measure himself. "He's been one of the very top players for years," Tait acknowledges, "and one of the reasons I play this game – perhaps the main reason – is to test myself against people like him." Is there any one skill in the Irishman's repertoire he wishes was a part of his own game? "If I envy anything, it's his ability to make good decisions on and around the ball. He does the basics so well, then throws in the odd bit of brilliance on top."
What about the street-fighting side of O'Driscoll's game: not so much the macho streak that drives the Irishman to involve himself in other people's arguments; more the hard edge that makes him one of the most productive turnover specialists in international rugby? "Brian was among the first centres to play like a glorified open-side flanker," he agrees. "If it's the way the game has gone for midfielders, it's partly down to him." Does Tait have any relish for the muscle-flexing stuff at close quarters? "Oh yes," he replies, an ironic smirk on his face. "I love all that crap."
He would not dream of saying so himself, but Tait is better equipped for life in the jungle of the tackle area than the unpersuaded like to make out. The England attack coach Brian Smith, widely credited with winning the argument over Tait's inclusion in the Six Nations starting line-up, says that in recent weeks, the player has convinced the rest of the back-room staff – most notably the forwards specialist John Wells, a dyed-in-the-wool Leicester hard-head who subscribes to the "balls first, hearts and minds second" theory of rugby persuasion – that he can stack up physically as well as do the arty-farty bits.
"Mathew is pretty hard on the ball now and he can clear out rucks with the best of them," the Australian remarked this week. "It's been said before that he is among the strongest players in the squad pound for pound, and I can believe it. We've thrown down the challenge to him now and from what I've seen, he's responding in just the way we want him to respond. I thought his flip to James Haskell for the winning try against Wales was exceptional, but you also have to remember that he took Toby Flood's pass on his hip while moving at speed – a difficult skill that would have been beyond a lot of centres. Also, not every 13 would have had the wheels to outstrip Tito Tebaldi for that try in Rome."
So why did the selectors reject Tait's claims last autumn, when the Wallabies and the All Blacks were in town? "I suppose we were a little size-focused," Smith admits. "We started out playing two footballers in Jonny Wilkinson and Shane Geraghty at 10 and 12, and it left us thinking that we needed someone to carry the ball and run the hard lines. Winning the collisions against those southern hemisphere guys is of prime importance.
"Now, we have Riki Flutey back fit, and Riki has some bump to his game at inside centre. Also, Mathew has been successful in reminding us that, by running into space, you can win some collisions by not having them in the first place. It's not all about T-boning people. We've said to him: 'Look, Mike Tindall is our experienced man in the position, who gives us leadership and provides our go-forward. As Mike's injured, this is your time'. He's up against O'Driscoll and O'Driscoll is one of the world's X-factor players. This is his chance. I don't think he'll hide from it."
When Tait made his international debut as an 18-year-old, against Wales in Cardiff in 2005, he lasted an hour, during which time he was twice picked up and carted halfway round South Wales by Gavin Henson. So began one of red-rose rugby's urban myths. Henson's showboating tackles were less destructive than they appeared – on both occasions, Tait retained possession – and England's problems that day had much less to do with the new centre than with the inexplicable decision to play the non-kicking Jamie Noon ahead of the long-kicking Olly Barkley inside him. Still, Tait was the player who found himself dumped, and despite his fine performance in the World Cup final two years later, accusations of callow fragility, unfair in '05 and ridiculous now, are still laid against him.
"I think part of my problem has been my willingness to be shoved around positionally," he says, referring to his stints at full-back and wing since joining Sale from Newcastle a couple of seasons ago, and to his spell as England's utility man, covering four positions from the bench. "I should probably have stuck to one role. I should have been stronger. But you want to play for your country, don't you? Besides, it's a personality thing, and I'm the quiet guy.
"To a certain extent, I thought I'd cracked it after the World Cup final. I thought I'd be able to kick on and command a place in the side. Maybe I took things for granted; certainly, I would now see that sort of assumption as disrespectful to the other players contesting the position. But going through all this has made me appreciate just how much I want to be involved at international level. I've learnt that selection is down to opinion, that there are times when your style doesn't fit and when that happens, you keep your head down and get on with what you do best.
"One of the reasons I have this chance now is that my form has improved since the autumn. I went to Sale to perform alongside top-class players like Luke McAlister and Juan Fernandez Lobbe and I took a lot from the experience, but we didn't play that much rugby under Philippe Saint-André and there were times when I couldn't get a run in the side. Now, we have Kingsley Jones and Byron Hayward in charge – and Jason Robinson too, who's been both inspirational and supportive. They're genuinely keen on the expansive game, which suits me. I'll be happier still if we get the Edgeley Park pitch sorted out. It's like playing on a beach every week."
Twickenham is no beach, and with the marvellous O'Driscoll on the far side of halfway, today's game will be no party either. Is Tait really the new Guscott? There will never be a better time for him to make his case.
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