Ben Foden will be in two unfamiliar places in the next few days: on the bench for Northampton against Leicester at Franklin’s Gardens and in the Christmas Eve gay Church wedding episode of Hollyoaks.
The man with the pop star wife, née Una Healy, whose Saturdays partner, Frankie Bridge is doing her ballroom stuff in the BBC Strictly Come Dancing final, might be expected to take the slings and arrows of rugby selection in his stride given that he enjoys such a showbiz lifestyle.
He is a paparazzi target when out and about with his young family, photogenic, articulate and, as his brief cameo in the popular Channel 4 soap illustrates, highly marketable. One of those things, then, being on the bench?
“No it is not,” said Foden. “Don’t get me wrong. Jimmy Wilson [the designated full-back against Tigers] has been playing out of his skin. You’ve got to get him on the park. He has been brilliant. But this is the first big Saints occasion in my career I will have missed out on starting.
“That really hurts me. I am as desperate to play for club and country as I have ever been. If anything, that hunger is even more acute. We finally got across the line at Northampton last season and won silverware [the Aviva Premiership title as well as the Amlin Challenge Cup], and we are on an upward curve.
“We’ve done the hard yakka to get there and now you want to enjoy the fruits, help bring more success to the club. And England always goes without saying. Of course you want to be back in that squad. Even if there weren’t a home Rugby World Cup on the horizon, you would want to be involved. Any player with a shred of ambition would.
“So, yeah, I’m not happy with the situation, but that is for me to resolve. Maybe this is the kick up the backside I need. Any coach in these circumstances wants to see a reaction. And that is what I intend giving.
The Hollyoaks shoot took little of Foden’s time, no more so than the hours spent on a bricklaying or wine growing course as Andrew Sheridan, the former Sale and Toulon prop, used to do in his spare time. Yet perceptions register, and Foden is aware that he might be seen as someone now happy to lead a contented celeb life and, at the age of 29, look to put together a career post-rugby.
“It is hard to get away from that sort of image,” acknowledges Foden. “People might look at me and see a player who has drifted away from the international scene over the last 18 months and think that he doesn’t want it any more, or that there must be more going on in his life. Look, the Hollyoaks thing is a two-minute appearance and I am very grateful for the fact that rugby has probably led to me having those sort of opportunities and who knows what down the line. But it is down the line. I am 100 per cent focused on rugby. I want to be known as Ben Foden the rugby player. Simple as that. And I want that starting shirt back.”
So, no Strictly Come Dancing as per the likes of Matt Dawson and Austin Healey. “Ha, not my thing, I can’t see me ever being involved,” said Foden with a chuckle. “But Frankie is doing brilliantly, eh?”
Foden’s mind will be very much focused elsewhere on Saturday. Even though he is on the bench, he is in decent shape at the moment. There is no doubt that part of the cause of his downgrading over the last couple of years has come through injury, the perennial bugbear of any athlete. A succession of ankle and knee problems have either taken Foden out of the front line or caused him to struggle to play with his usual zip and verve on his return.
Given that Harlequins’ Mike Brown is now seen as such a rock-solid selection at full-back for England you have to remind yourself that it was only two and a half years ago that such an accolade belonged to Foden who had a virtually uninterrupted run in the No 15 shirt for the preceding two seasons.
The World Cup die is not quite cast, but Foden knows that he needs to be making a mark if he is to force his way to the forefront of the selectors’ minds. And for that to happen he needs to be on the field from the first whistle.
“Of course you do, I understand that,” said Foden, whose last appearances for England came as a wing against Argentina and New Zealand in the 2013 autumn series. “But there is a run of high-profile games coming up over the next few weeks. That match against Harlequins at Twickenham on the 27th is in my sights, up against [Mike] Brownie. If I’m brutally honest, he deserved to be ahead of me, so too Alex Goode [Saracens] when he had a spell.
“But the niggles have gone and I’m starting to get the confidence back as well that goes with a run of games without interruption. That is so important. I know I have still got it in me to play at the highest level. It is disappointing not to be involved with England but talks last month with Stuart [Lancaster] and Faz [Andy Farrell] have reassured me that I am not out of consideration. Now is the time for the big push. I’m fully fit and feeling good. It is up to me to show my worth.”
The East Midlands derby against Leicester always holds particular resonance. It has often been fiery and invariably produces top-end rugby. Certainly Saints’ Premiership semi-final victory over the Tigers was not only one of the games of the season, it also confirmed to onlookers that this Northampton generation had come of age. They withstood huge pressure and had enough self-conviction to see them through, the stuff of champions, as proved by their subsequent last-gasp extra-time victory over Saracens in the final.
“We have matured on so many fronts, and have got match-winners across the board these days rather than in just one or two positions,” said Foden.
“Look how well Jimmy [Wilson] has done, Tom Stephenson too in the centre. You have got to be right on top of your game to get a start even. I know that better than anyone. The bench is not where I want to be. I want to be out there. That level of competition is great for everyone. It is up to me to put it all to rights, no one else.”
The fires are burning as fiercely as ever within Foden. There is plenty left to savour.
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