January 31, 2007
Sale Sharks may have struggled to field a full complement of players this season because of a devastating catalogue of injuries, but they may have enough of a quorum on duty for England Saxons against Italy A at Exeter on Friday night (8pm) to help give the pack a valuable edge.
With prop Stuart Turner and hooker Andy Titterrell packing down infront of lock Dean Schofield and with flanker Chris Jones and scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth on the replacement bench, the Saxons should have a measure of cohesion and continuity that has been denied the Edgeley Park club for much of the season.
For second-row forward Schofield, the familiarity the starting trio has developed at the set pieces should help to make only his second appearance in an England Saxons shirt less of an organisational challenge.
"Adjusting to playing with different players is not such an issue given that they are all Premiership players who know what's required and work to similar game plans at their clubs," says the 28-year-old. "Coach Jim Mallinder is very good at his job and he has given us a simple but effective game plan, so fitting in has been pretty easy."
There is clearly a keen sense of anticipation in the former Aldwinians player as he looks ahead to another test in an England shirt.
"When I played last summer against Scotland A in the Churchill Cup in Canada, I was carrying a shoulder injury," he says. "I could have soldiered on, but decided when we came home that I needed to get it fixed and had an operation. It was the best decision I've made in rugby and now it feels great."
And the lessons from that sole outing in Toronto? "There is no doubt that it was a step up from club rugby," he says. "It was very physical, a lot quicker and more intense. I was wearing an England shirt and it was a case of putting your body on the line.
"But being selected and playing was a real boost for my confidence. I was playing with a lot of high profile players, as I will be on Friday, but having done it once, you develop your confidence and self-belief."
His career path embraces Lancashire and the England Counties XV as his only representative honours, other than the Saxons, but both were important milestones in developing his self-esteem and a belief that he might make it to the top.
"I never really thought about playing for England when I started out - I just fancied playing at the local club after learning at game at Audenshaw Grammar School. But when I joined Sale and started looking round the dressing room and seeing that I was the only player without senior international honours, I thought �I've got to do something about this'."
Now, having established himself as a fully paid-up member of a champion team, the man who came from the building site to earn his living as an elite sportsman, gets another chance to press his claims for the ultimate accolade.
They lads at Aldwinians will be watching the TV with keen interest on Friday night to see how their man gets on - and they'll be waiting to deliver a frank assessment as only mates can when he pitches up to help with another coaching session.
He's come a long way since he plunged over for a couple of tries at Twickenham when Aldwinians won the Intermediate Cup in 1999 and since he allowed the Sale Sharks website to include the line that �the Big Brother House was the place he'd most like to visit'.
When Friday night is over, that's the next priority needing urgent attention!