A mention in dispatches was not all that Tom Palmer had hoped for this week, but when the kind words in question come from the mouth of your national captain, not to mention an all-time great in your position, it is not a bad second-best.
The gist of Martin Johnson's comment, in reply to a question about the current strength of the England squad, was that Palmer, the 23-year-old Leeds second-row, would have been up to the task if he had been pitched in against the All Blacks yesterday. As it is, Palmer, though "disappointed" not to have been included in the 30-man party led by Johnson for the November internationals, was left to give full attention to his club's wholly unexpected challenge for the Zurich Premiership title, which resumes away to Wasps this afternoon at Adams Park.
Palmer already has one cap, from England's North American tour of 2001, when Johnson and others were with the Lions. As a middle-jumping, ball-carrying second-row, Palmer is more of a threat to Leicester's Ben Kay or Danny Grewcock of Bath than Johnson. But all three have finished on the losing side to Palmer and Leeds since September, and Wasps' Simon Shaw is next on the hit list.
There are plenty of observers who attributed Leeds' bottom-place finish in last year's Premiership to Palmer's absence from the run-in after he suffered a broken leg in March. The Tykes did not win a match without him. Plenty more have raved this season about the physics graduate's contribution to Leeds' rise to second spot. And one in particular, the Tykes' director of rugby, Phil Davies, says of the London-born lock that "over the next couple of years, it will be 'when' not 'if' he plays for England. He's in with a shout of making the World Cup squad. He could go in now and do a one-off job, but he's still young, still developing."
It is all grist to England's mill. Last Tuesday, Brian Ashton, the National Academy manager, went to Leeds to meet Davies and his deputy, Jon Callard, and run the rule over Palmer and the Tykes' free-scoring full-back Dan Scarbrough. The pair are among the Academy's first intake of 13, a privileged group named last month who are individually monitored by Ashton, the former Bath and Ireland coach, and, until last May, assistant to Clive Woodward. "You couldn't pick a better bloke than Brian to do this," said Davies, a second-row for Wales in his time. "It's a positive way to coach, when you have the time, one-to-one."
Palmer added: "Brian came and watched when we played Bath [two weeks ago]. Afterwards he gave us a sheet with a few points on it, good and bad. We were also given self-assessment forms to fill in, with what we think of ourselves, and what our coaches think.
"You had to rate yourself, one to five, on attitude: concentration, determination, how you handle pressure. Then they had tackling, technique, kicking – which didn't apply to me – ball-carrying, contact-area skills. And fitness: endur-ance, flexibility, strength, power, speed, agility." Was it tempting to put a five in each category? "I was honest with how I thought I was," was the reply.
Fair enough – Palmer, a wonderfully natural handler who roams menacingly in the loose and is a devil on the opposition's line-out, is no fly-by-night. His try in the last 10 minutes at Bath, handing off another England rival, Steve Borthwick, to finish a counterattack from Leeds' 22, must have been a boost to the endur-ance mark. "England want me to be more physical around the contact area," Palmer said. "Also to concentrate on my running lines in the wide areas, cutting good lines off the backs in midfield."
Davies has put his protégé in charge of Leeds' line-out preparation, reviewing and reporting back on video tapes of opposing second-rows. Perhaps the physics comes in handy: Johnson and Leicester had no answer to Palmer's Law in the Tykes' famous victory at Headingley a few weeks back.
Palmer has trained half-a-dozen times with England this season. He has the utmost respect for Johnson, even resembles him a little with his shock of dark hair and quiet off-field manner. They also share a fine grounding in what was the rugby world's best finishing school long before the advent of academies.
Johnson went to King Country as a 19-year-old, and played for New Zealand Under-21s. Palmer arrived at Otago Boys' High School in Dunedin on exchange from Boroughmuir High School – his English parents had moved to Edinburgh for work – just before his 17th birthday. He spent two seasons there, and played for New Zealand Schools. "I went from Boroughmuir, where the opposition would be public schools' second XVs, to an Under-21s league in New Zealand," said Palmer. "You couldn't help but improve." The process shows no sign of stopping.
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