New locksmith and a key player Robert Kitson on the versatile

Tim Rodber, who has been successfully converted to England's engine room

(By Robert Kitson, The Manchester Guardian, Dec 5, 1998)

It cannot be long before Jeremy Clarkson is wheeled in to assess English rugby. All this talk of stepping up a gear, reacting to conditions and cutting straight lines through the traffic. This afternoon Clive Woodward will just settle for something reliable to get him from A to B, or Vorsprung durch Technik as they say in Bloemfontein.

In Tim Rodber England have long had an impressively assembled off-roader, a man for all terrains, whether dressed in his army or rugby kit. He even drives a Range Rover. No surprise, then, that when Woodward needed a lock to manoeuvre him out of a corner last month he chose to customise a proven model sitting idly out the back.

Rodber as a second-row is less of an issue, in an era when coaches knowingly refer to a back four rather than a front five, than why he has not played more. Last Saturday was only the fourth time an England team containing the Northampton captain had lost at Twickenham since his debut almost seven years ago. All but one reverse has been by less than three points. Yet despite 35 caps and a fine Lions pedigree, Rodber remains on trial, required to switch position to get back into the fold.

In the fullness, when we know for sure if Mike Catt is English rugby's Graeme Hick, we will draw parallels between Rodber and Angus Fraser and ask whether their value was only appreciated in absentia. What you are unlikely to hear from Fraser, or any other active international sportsman, is the line "my persona was probably my undoing". Like batting at the Waca, a quiet chat with Rodber can veer deep into self-examination.

Even if his 6ft 6in and slightly aloof military air camouflage the Rodber within, the 29-year-old acknowledges he took far too long to banish civilian suspicions. Only when the then-England coach Jack Rowell took him aside at Marlow RFC in 1996 and fired off a stream of verbal shrapnel did the inner man poke his head above the parapet.

"He just dropped me to my knees. Told me I thought I was better than I was. I went back to Ian McGeechan at Northampton and, in his totally different way, he said much the same. It was the perfect good-cop bad-cop scenario because they were both talking to each other.

"In the end I realised they were right. From there I had a year in 1996-97 when, for the first time, I played consistently from pre- Christmas through to the Lions. Whether you're playing international sport or you're chief executive of a multinational, the sun shines out of you're arse in your own opinion. Ultimately, though, it doesn't."

Injuries ruined last season but, mentally, he now feels far more consistent. "I know when I'm losing it in a game - when I'm walking or when people run past me - and how to kick myself back in. Now I get Johnno {Martin Johnson}, for example, to shout at me if he runs past. I need people to be honest. In the past if they wanted to criticise they didn't necessarily tell me."

Rodber remains a captain in the Green Howards infantry regiment, albeit more involved these days with recruitment and PR to facilitate his rugby. Ironically his years of sporting commitment have now scuppered any chance of active soldiering once next year's World Cup is out of the way; sitting gloomily at home, a converted barn surrounded by six acres, earlier this year recovering from a snapped knee ligament after a wasted season of twanged hamstrings and concussion, even he questioned the wisdom of dovetailing two such demanding vocations. "I do sometimes regret my rugby career from an army point of view. I always wanted to be a soldier and there were things, like selection for the SAS, I'd like to have tried."

The South Africans need no re-introduction, not merely because of his Lions efforts or the costly punch which saw him sent off in Port Elizabeth in 1994. One of England's best away performance of the decade was the 32-15 win in Pretoria on that same tour.

"Has one ever seen an England team glisten in a ball-game with such a shimmering and sustained diamond brightness?" purred Frank Keating in these pages. "Rodber and his forwards were quite stupendous from first to last."

The new locksmith brushes it all off - "on the day it clicked" - and predicts a less glittering encounter. "Nobody has picked up on the fact Australia didn't score a try against us. The last World Cup was won on defence and that's what we're working on. For me the pleasures aren't necessarily running with the ball. It's the big tackle, winning the bit of ball you really needed to win."

What matters most of all is improving on his tackle-count against the Wallabies - "11 and no misses" - and making sure he is involved in the 1999 tournament. "I know it's something that will not come again unless I play well." Which, in modern rugby terminology, means staying in top gear for the long haul.