RUGBY was something I only watched on TV or in the crowd at Franklin’s Gardens until I was 15 when a teacher, Mark Lee, at my school, Northampton School for Boys, suggested I gave it a try.
ANGER ISSUES are something I had a few of and as I’d only played football and basketball up until then – I was a lot slimmer! – Mark thought it was the perfect sport for me.
IN SCHOOL MATCHES Mark used to shout at me, “You’ll play for England.” He would regularly stop games and give penalties against me for not passing, running too far with the ball or holding it under one arm. The opposition used to look at him as if he was mad!
I'D GET INTO TROUBLE at school and Mark was always there to tell other teachers I needed to do rugby training rather than detention.
I THINK the teachers saw a lad with a chip on his shoulder, who was quite sporty, big, aggressive and luckily had a bit of speed as well. Those things carried me through.
BASKETBALL really helped me with my hand-to-eye coordination, so you don’t need to have played the game all your life to succeed.
I LEFT SCHOOL at 16 and joined Northampton Old Scouts, whose pitches were next to the school playing fields, and from there I made it into the Saints Academy.
MY MOVE from the back row to hooker came about thanks to Sir Ian McGeechan and Colin Deans. I even played a few matches at tighthead, which helped me to understand the intricacies of the scrum. It taught me the ‘language’ of the front row.
ENGLAND took me on their tour of North America in 2001, but I had a knee injury so wasn’t meant to play. But the injury healed and I came on as a sub, in the back row, in the final game in LA and seemed to do well.
SIR CLIVE WOODWARD told Simon Hardy, England’s lineout coach, that I would play against Scotland at the start of the 2002 Six Nations at hooker and that he had to get me ready. Simon didn’t tell me, of course, but used to turn up at my house to coach me, sometimes every day. I used to think, ‘Why’s he making all this effort with me?’
I WOULD NEVER have played for England without Simon and I will be forever grateful for the dedication he showed. He didn’t tell me until years later what Clive had said.
I USED TO DREAD the ball going out in my early days at Northampton because it meant a lineout, but now I look forward to the set-piece. I never lost faith – you either break or you move forward.
I'M BLOODY-MINDED and I think that helped hugely when I came back from my neck injury, which initially led to me retiring. The World Cup was the big aim when I came back from that injury and to conquer what you first think you can’t do is the best feeling for me.
ENJOYMENT of the sport is what inspires me to work hard enough to play for England. Sometimes when I was young I didn’t enjoy games because I was worrying about them so much, whereas now I’m older I enjoy every game.
THE HOOKERS in the England squad are like a little team in themselves and that is how it’ll be in New Zealand. I’m always happy to help Dylan (Hartley) and Lee (Mears) and it is the same for them with me. The coaches pick the team, not us, so we need to stick together.
THE SPIRIT in this group is great and that is where I think the squad is really good at the moment, because everyone wants to help each other. I hope my experience can help as this tournament is the biggest bubble we’ve ever been in.
Who would be your preferred starting hooker of the PUMA bunch...Dylan Hartley, Lee Mears or Big Steve?
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This article was written by our guest contributor, Paul Morgan, Editor of Rugby World