IN 1998, at the end of my first year at Loughborough Uni, I was picked to go on the full England tour of Australia. I was just 19 at the time and faced with the dilemma of choosing my education over playing for my country, which is any player’s dream.
I knew I was in with chance as I’d been placed on standby. Then, one day after lectures, I returned to my hall of residence and there was a note pinned to the door, saying, ‘ring Don Rutherford, it’s urgent’. Don was Technical Director of the RFU at the time and responsible for squad selection and when I rang him, he told me Mike Harrison, the tour captain and winger, had picked up an injury and I’d be taking his place.
Straight away, I went to tell my tutor, the amazing Jim Greenwood, the good news. Naturally, he was delighted for me, but he said I better go and speak to Tom Jones, the head of rugby, and let him know. I don’t blame Tom, because that’s just the way Uni policy was back then, but he told me I’d have to re-sit the whole year if I went because I’d miss my exams.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. My parents weren’t that well off and it was only because I had a full grant that I was able to go to Uni, and no grants were available if you had to re-sit a year. I took the decision not to go because I thought the England caps would come at some point down the line, especially with me being so young, but that never happened. My teammate at Leicester, Barry Evans, went instead and got two caps, and we always have a joke about it to this day.
I got close to being capped a few more times, none more so than in 1992 for England’s game against Canada at Wembley. Rory Underwood had ‘retired’ for the first time and I made it into the 23. I thought, ‘this is it, I’ve got a right chance now’. We’d played against Wasps the Saturday before, and I’d skinned Chris Oti once and scored a try. We assembled at Quins, upstairs in the bar, and as Dick Best started to announce the squad, I was confident I’d be in it. He read out the backline, and then he mentioned everyone else except me. I wasn’t even sure he knew I was there!
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