After England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, I was in sports book heaven. From Jason Leonard to Jason Robinson, Martin Johnson to Clive Woodward, a steady flow of autobiographies were released in the years that followed that famous night in November. Some were better than others, all giving varying insights into the build up to the final, with Matt Dawson’s in particular standing out, as it included his views about two very contrasting British & Irish Lions tours for him personally. Given the barren four years that followed the World Cup win, they were something of a comfort blanket, and a way of taking yourself back to that unforgettable evening. There is one that still stands out for me, and that is from a player who did not play a single minute in any of the games in that campaign…
Austin Healey played the majority of his club rugby for Leicester Tigers, and amassed over fifty caps for England from 1997-2003. For those who were not lucky enough to see him play, he was incredibly versatile, and played pretty much every position for England behind the scrum, which in the professional era is not something we are likely to see again. Personally, I thought fly half was his best position but he had a fair bit of competition for that spot! He now works a pundit for BT sport, commentating on Premiership Rugby.
His autobiography came out in 2006, and once I got my hands on it, I could not put it down. There are some very funny stories in there from his house sharing days with Will Greenwood, and the story about him hiding his best mate’s Lions call up letter gets recycled every four years when the touring squad is announced. However, it is the part about missing out on the world cup that I think is the best section, and makes the book what it is. He is incredibly honest about the disappointment of not being selected, and how he struggled afterwards in the months following the final. It is easy to forget that Healey was a huge part of the England team for near enough six straight seasons, so to lose not only his place in the starting XV, but then the whole squad on the eve of the tournament, must have been heartbreaking. If he had been included (and he did get called up briefly as injury cover for the French game, but was sent home when others were declared fit), he could have feasibly made the bench for the final, such was his skill set. In this section, he does not wrap up his emotions or pretend he is not bothered. As a reader, you can feel the frustration and angst about an event he arguably should have been part of falling off the pages.
I am writing this because as a relative newcomer to twitter and blogging, I find it remarkable the abuse he seems to gets on social media. I always admired him as a player, and genuinely find his punditry quite insightful in terms of the more tactical aspects of the game. He is a master at shutting down the ‘haters’ on twitter from what I can tell, but it is sad to me that he should have to. I have not checked, but I would bet none of the 2003 squad get a fraction of the abuse he gets. I think it would be different for him now if he had been part of the squad.
If you want a measure of the man, have a read of Will Greenwood’s book. Greenwood writes poignantly about the loss of his first child, a story that is difficult to read without welling up. He describes how supportive Healey was during this period, by allowing time for him to talk and explains the positive difference him ‘listening’ to his personal trauma made. We all need people like that around us when things are tough.
To finish off, perhaps those who are quick to criticise him should try to listen to what he has to say. I think when it comes to rugby, given what he has given the game, and what the game has given him, he is as well placed as anyone to comment.