Mathew Tait started the Rugby World Cup a promising replacement centre, seven-and-a-half weeks later his destiny for club and country might lie at full-back.
IT is the pattern of sporting life that as soon as a major tournament finishes, thoughts instantly turn to the next one. So within hours of Alain Rolland’s final whistle sounding at the Stade de France, the newspapers were speculating on England teams for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
The name which kept cropping up from pundits and players alike as pivotal to the Red Rose’s future was that of Mathew Tait. Sages such as Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt were happy to portray the Newcastle Falcons youngster as a potential leading figure in the team to succeed England’s “grumpy old men”.
With 19 caps by the age of 21, that Tait should be named in the vanguard of the next generation was entirely predictable – but the position earmarked for him was more surprising.
The quietly-spoken youngster from Shotley Bridge made his name at centre or, like fellow Barnard Castle old boys Rory and Tony Underwood, the wing. But Tait finished against South Africa at full-back and with Jason Robinson – who he replaced that night – now retired, the position could be his for keeps.
“It’s a bit strange, I’ve played there three times and twice it’s been in internationals,” says Tait.
“You get thrown in at the deep end but you just kind of deal with it.”
Destiny seems to be pushing Tait towards the No 15 jersey.
Less than 24 hours after he collected his runners-up medal in Paris, the Falcons’ Matt Burke limped off the pitch at Kingston Park for perhaps the last time, victim of a knee injury which could end his career.
A Tait had long been thought of as the legendary Australian’s long-term replacement at Falcons – but not Mathew Tait. His 19-year-old brother, Alex, made his debut as a replacement against Gloucester at the weekend.
“I’ll play wherever I’m put,” Tait the elder says diplomatically. “It’s obviously been discussed between myself and Fletch (director of rugby John Fletcher) as a possibility.
“I don’t know where he’s going to put me this week. It might be at full-back, it might be at centre. I seem to pop up all over the place at the minute!
“I’m gutted for Burkey, he’s been a fantastic servant for the club and he’s going to be missed. But if and when I play full-back I’ve got one of the greatest full-backs who’s ever played the game to offer me advice.”
With Burke missing and centre Mark Mayerhofler’s shoulder injury denying him a farewell appearance before returning to New Zealand, Saturday’s EDF Energy Cup clash at home to Newport Gwent Dragons will have the feel of a new era and one Tait hopes will heavily involve his brother too. “It’s my mum and dad’s dream for us to be playing on the same pitch,” he said. “We haven’t played in the same team since Consett Under-8s, but if we lined up in the same Falcons side my mum would probably be in tears!
“I’m probably not the best full-back in the Tait family. I’m delighted for Alex, he’s worked hard over the past year and now he’s getting the recognition he deserves.
“At the moment he’s in my bad books for not doing the cleaning, so we’re not really on speaking terms, but I’m delighted for him because he’s worked hard in the last year or so to get his chance. Watching clips of the Gloucester game he seemed to do himself justice, so fingers crossed we’ll be on the same pitch sometime soon.”
Tait is not about to get carried away with grand plans, however. “Nailing down a position seems to be a problem at the minute but I played five games on the trot in the centre in France and I feel I performed better every game,” he says.
“It would just be nice to get a bit of continuity. I’m always going to be used in different positions as and when needed if there’s injuries. In a squad game you just kind of do that and get on with it.”
Having been an international rugby player since he was 18, Tait cannot complain about his fast-tracked education. Burke is just one of the World Cup winners he can call on for help.
“It’s quite intimidating initially when you’re in that kind of international environment,” he said, “but it feels I’ve been around it quite a long time now.
“It’s great to have players like Mike Catt, Jason Robinson and Jonny Wilkinson who are massively experienced to fall back on and ask advice from. It was a big help for myself and for Toby Flood as well.”
If I lined up in the same Falcons side as my brother Alex, my mum would probably be in tears!
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THE Rugby Football Union is to crack down on player interviews and books in the light of criticism of England coach Brian Ashton from his own players.
With the World Cup final less than a fortnight ago, Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt have already had their say on the 61-year-old’s management style in their forthcoming autobiographies, attributing England reaching the final to the leadership of the senior players, rather than Ashton.
Outraged RFU chairman Martyn Thomas said: “I think it is absolutely disgraceful. This has tarnished a great achievement.” The words could be particularly damaging with Ashton’s position due for discussion before the end of the year, especially now his opposite number in the final, Jake White, has expressed an interest in the job after quitting South Africa.
During England’s World Cup-winning 2003 campaign player columns and interviews were closely monitored.
Coach Sir Clive Woodward went even further on the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand, preventing players and staff giving interviews or publishing tour diaries or autobiographies until six months after the trip, but Ashton has taken a more relaxed approach.
But Thomas said: “Any clause we introduce will apply to major tours and major tournaments, within the confines of the law.
“I have already put a call in to the RFU legal officer, Karena Vleck, and we will discuss it, and I will raise it at the management board meeting.”
A number of colleagues have sprung to Ashton’s defence, including England captain Phil Vickery. “Brian Ashton and the coaches worked their arses off to get things right. So did the players,” he said. “We did have issues and some of Lawrence’s points are very valid, but we have to remember there is a book to sell. I feel very, very sorry for Brian with some of the things that have been said.”
The new approach already seems to be taking effect, judging by Mathew Tait’s response to the subject. “The guys are entitled to their opinions and I’ve been informed I’ve got no comment on that,” joked the Newcastle Falcon.
Dallaglio and Catt could be disciplined under RFU regulations if the English game’s governing body find the books contained statements prejudicial to the interests of the Union or the game.