Striving for Ireland's call
He's starring for the top team in England but Roger Wilson is still out of the loop, says Brendan Fanning
I t is in keeping with Roger Wilson's story that on a Sunday when all the Irish provinces are at rest, and he is centre stage with the form team in Europe, that stage should be in virtual darkness. The Sky cameras will be elsewhere.
Northampton's return leg with Cardiff, which may well decide the outcome of Pool 1, has been parked around the back on S4C.
And the reason it's appropriate is because Wilson is at the top of his game and around the bottom of the heap of contenders for Ireland's back row. He knows it, but refuses to sign the form where he has to acknowledge it.
"At the start of this season I had the opportunity to go back to Ulster," he says. "I gave it serious thought and one of the hard decisions was that I realised that if I didn't come back it would seriously damage any chance I had of playing for Ireland. The way I felt I was playing at the end of last season, I definitely felt I could make one last push at it but I just decided to stay here where I'm feeling comfortable.
"And who's to say that if I went back things would be any different to when I was at Ulster? It was a tricky call but I think I made the right decision. Even though I'm still over here, I still kind of hold out expectations of getting involved. I know it's difficult with the overseas policy that if you're not an established player -- someone like Tommy Bowe -- then you're not going to get in and that's understandable. But there is still a part of me that lives in hope."
Being overlooked in the summer surely didn't help, when 13 players were ruled out from the start for one reason or another? And another two back rowers were out of the picture after the first Test?
"I was really disappointed with that because at the end of last season I was playing probably the best I've ever done. When the squad was announced, I realised there were a few injuries and I got on the phone to Declan and he explained to me that he hadn't been watching a great deal of the games over here, which was disappointing in itself.
"He said he would keep in contact as the tour went on and then one of the under 20s boys (Rhys Ruddock) was called up. That was massively disappointing but it's pretty much out of my hands and there's not much I can do. Unless there's a serious injury crisis. I'm playing in the best team in England and I think I could do a job if called on."
That tour was the injury crisis. We're talking national emergency, not any old injury crisis, before Kidney looks up the telephone directory for the code for Northampton again. And is the coach wrong not to add to the number eight's one cap?
Perhaps not. Wilson is evidently a very good rugby player who has something special in that he can toe the line week after week in such a punishing business. Yet while everything about his game is good, there is nothing about it that's exceptional. Wilson had every right to get the hump when he was passed over for Ruddock, but equally Kidney could justify it on the basis of fitness and proximity (Ruddock was actively playing and in the same hemisphere) as well as building for the future.
For Roger Wilson, the future is in the English midlands. He signed on with Saints for another two seasons at the start of this term, with an option on a third. If all that comes to pass he will be 31 and have clocked up a taximan's mileage. They knew what he could offer them when they signed him in the summer of 2008: always turns up for work and always clears his desk before going home. He had done it over 100 times for Ulster and soon he will have reached that milestone with Northampton. He lined out 33 times last season, missing only four games, which put him in the top five in the club.
In 2006 in Canada, Wilson emerged unharmed from a terrifying car crash with Ulster team-mates Matt McCullough and Andrew Maxwell. Incredibly, he has walked away from three car write-offs. Not only that, he hardly ever gets injured, and the only chunk of time he has been unavailable for Saints was for a five-week suspension last year for a dangerous tackle. Interestingly, he talks a bit about how much his colleagues moan about their lot. He says nothing.
They moan about having to train, by his reckoning, harder and longer than other clubs. This regularly involves mauling drills on freezing winter mornings with their tops off, a torture introduced by forwards' coach Dorian West from his Leicester days.
"You don't get the benefit of gripping opposition jerseys so it's a lot more difficult and good for technique," he says. "It's not the most pleasant thing but it's been paying off for us. When we played Wasps we scored four tries from mauls. And we spend a lot of time doing scrummaging work. And that's paid off as well.
"You look at someone like Brian Mujati who struggled to get to grips with things when he came in first but he's worked hard on his technique and now he's flying. The sessions get pretty full-on at times. From speaking to the coaches and also the conditioning staff they do believe that we probably set the standard in terms of training -- how hard we train and the amount we train. We rarely get much time off. Coming off the training regime in Ulster, it was definitely a massive step up for me. Pre-season has been absolutely horrendous every year. I don't know what toll it will take on the body in years to come but it seems to be paying off short term.
"They have a good medical team over here and we spend a set amount of time every day doing individual stuff on old injuries and stuff to prevent us getting new ones. Again it's something that does take a bit of time during the day and the players moan about it but if you look at the stats compared to other teams our injuries are fairly few. It's paying off."
They need to pay attention to that detail for Saints play a very attritional game. Over and over in training they repeat the plays that put defences under pressure, that open up space for their finishers to polish off. Set-piece is king for them, which suits a number eight who spends a lot of his time at the back of an advancing scrum. And are they advancing, are they, as coach Jim Malinder claimed after their second loss to Munster last season, really going forward?
"I came over here two and half years ago and we'd just got up from the First Division and the improvements we've made have been pretty big. The first year we got up we won the Amlin Cup and finished eighth in the league; then last season we finished second in the league (table) and qualified for the quarter-final of the Heineken (and won the L=V); and a year on we're top of the Premiership and top of our pool.
"They are big improvements week in, week out and we've almost developed a winning culture. We know we'll go through periods of a game where we're not playing well but the guy beside you will dig in until it improves. There is that belief that even when things aren't going well we can pick things up at the right time."
It worked for them in Edinburgh when they were under real pressure, and if the Scots can do the same to Castres today, then the last two rounds might not come with the same pressure attached. Regardless they will have to grind it out against Cardiff an hour later in what will be bleak midwinter. The Saints won't have their tops off but it will be hard going. And there won't be much warmth from a grand television audience.
In those circumstances their go-to men will be priceless. Roger Wilson is one of them. Even if he is not in that category for Ireland, it is success in itself.