Walking away from Pennyhill Park past the team bus as it was being loading up for Heathrow, the status of Ben Foden within this England squad struck you. Although with only 23 caps to his name (only nine players in the 32 man EPS squad have more), the Northampton full back immediately comes across as a senior authority within the camp.
What that also means is that Foden has been part of England’s high and lows over the last 12 months, from the Six Nations success to the low of the post-Rugby World Cup fallout. The relief on at last having something positive to read on the back pages of the newspapers, rather than negative revelations on the front, is clear.
“It’s great that we can wipe the slate clean and start with a win. To do that with such an inexperienced team is massive. For me, it shows a lot of character, particularly from the uncapped guys in the way they dogged it out. You could see at the final whistle the passion those guys had playing for their country, and winning for their country as well, which is inspiring.”
Foden is not too swept up by last week’s rare success over the Scottish border however to ignore where England struggled. Although they produced an impressive 142 tackles, Scotland broke the line too many times for his liking. “They should have won the game, and probably would if they had finished their chances.”
“Our defence was far from perfect, I think they made about 14 line breaks, but where we definitely played well was around the fringes not giving away any silly penalties. We showed good discipline getting back after they’d broken through, and it was key to us winning the game.”
As is ever the case with an international full back, Foden used a previous experience to his advantage when he faced Scotland flanker Ross Rennie alone, charging towards him with ball in hand, two men hollering for the pass on his left. Except in Foden’s previous experience, he had been the attacker.
“I made a line break when I was about 19, and looked up seeing the full back was quite far away and looked left for an option. By the time I turned back he’d come up and smashed me, so I took that experience and did the same against Rennie! I didn’t even realise I’d knocked it on, so I was a bit disappointed when the referee said ‘scrum Scotland’.”
Not only did Foden manage to prevent what appeared on the TV screen as a simple chance for Scotland to score a rare international try, but it also gave him back the confidence that had taken a major knock after the World Cup quarter-final exit to France, when he was caught out by Vincent Clerc for France’s important score.
“People would have been asking questions of me defensively, so it was important for me to get a good performance under my belt. Hopefully this weekend I can get the ball in hand a bit more and show what I can do attacking wise. It was important to get it not just into my head that I’m a good defender at this level, but also into everyone else’s around me that I can make those last-ditch tackles when needed.”
Given his status as England’s number one full back having seemingly held off the challenge of Mike Brown, it’s perhaps easy to forget that originally the former Sale Shark started life in professional rugby as a scrum-half. With the transition from promising number 9 to Test match 15 came plenty of hard work on adjusting both his mental and physical conditioning.
“When I first started playing full back with Northampton my defence was one of the things I worked hard with Grays (Paul Grayson) one-on-one. They knew I had the attacking ability to play in that position but in terms of defence my positioning on the pitch was a bit raw. I was playing more like a 9 than a 15, when I was covering tackles and getting into position to field kicks.”
“I worked hard on it for about a year and a half, but sometimes you’re going to have the nightmare scenario were you are beaten in a one-on-one. That comes with the territory of being a 15 and the last line of defence. You either make the tackle and get all the plaudits and the pat on the back, but then other times you’re going to miss one when someone steps you or whatever and you look foolish.”
With the Rennie tackle under his belt and his confidence seemingly restored, Foden will go into the Stadio Olimpico this weekend in good spirits. All of the talk since England’s new squad has been announced regarding a new leadership group to take England forward has mentioned the names of Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley and Toby Flood. Foden is certainly in there alongside them, and if he is to become one of the best full backs on the planet, then this Six Nations could be the perfect time to make that push.
by Ben Coles