ENGLAND’S AUTUMN INTERNATIONAL SEASON KICKS OFF THIS WEEKEND WITH AUSTRALIA AT TWICKENHAM WHERE HEAD COACH, ANDY ROBINSON, HOPES TO DEMOLISH THE WALLABIES’ SCRUM COURTESY OF THE WRECKING BALL THAT IS ANDREW SHERIDAN. PRODIGIOUSLY STRONG BUT FAMOUSLY RETICENT, THE SALE SHARKS’ PROP IS THE MOST CHALLENGING CONVERSATION IN ALL JOURNALISM.
Interviewing Andrew Sheridan is like waiting for speech to be invented. Actions, he’s very good at, which – you presume – is one reason why he can bench-press close to twice his own body weight: words, though, don’t seem to come quite so easily. In fairness, his friends did try to warn me.
‘If he wants to say something then he’ll say it,’ said Charlie Hodgson, as I sought encouragement from the Sale Sharks’ dressing room, ‘but otherwise, you’ve not no chance.’ Chris Jones agreed. ‘He does sometimes open up but he’s not a big fan of interviews.’ Mark Cueto pulled a small grimace. ‘I reckon you might struggle.’
Undaunted, we hired a chummy cameraman, dimmed our harsher television lights, found a comfy chair and offered our Gulliver of a guest a choice of still or sparkling. And just to be on the safe side, I opted to open the interrogation with the hobby rather than the rugby, the hobby being bricklaying.
GS: (Smiling ingratiatingly) So, Andrew, what about the cement? How do you get that to the right consistency?
AS: (Frowning slightly) You mean the mortar?
GS: The mortar, yes. How do you get the mortar to the right consistency?
AS: It gets mixed for us.
GS: You don’t mix it yourself?
AS: (Obviously but politely) No. It comes in wheelbarrows.
GS: So you just slosh it in and plonk the bricks together?
AS: (There is a another lengthy pause while he, slowly, deliberately, folds his arms. They look like raw hams.) Something like that, yes.
GS: (Starting to fidget a little) So is laying the bricks as easy as it looks or is it quite technical?
AS: (He considers this for a moment.) No, it’s quite technical.
(The chummy cameraman is now beginning to shake with laughter. Jammed in next to my left leg, I can feel his tripod vibrating.)
GS: (With a hint of desperation) So would you say it’s more technical than, say, scrummaging?
AS: (Interminable pause) Yes.
Clearly it’s always better to be brief than tedious but Andrew Sheridan has turned circumspection into an art form. The man’s – clearly – very far from stupid and since no one can possibly be that shy, I presumed it must have been me that was putting him off, until, that is, I stumbled across a Q&A he’d done in a week or three past with ‘The Guardian’.
The Guardian: Was there a specific Incredible Hulk moment when you discovered you were super strong?
AS: Not really.
The Guardian: (Changing tack) Okay, so what’s the best prank you’ve ever been involved in?
AS: The lads at Sale once wrapped someone’s car in cling film.
The Guardian: (Changing tack again) Word is you’re quite a folk singer?
AS: I dabble.
The Guardian: What’s the last CD you bought?
AS: I think it was David Gray.
The Guardian: So if I gave you a choice between Britney and Beyonce, you would choose … ?
AS: Neither really.
The Guardian: Thanks, Andy
AS: You’re welcome.
All of this is relative of course. Certainly interviewing him is preferable to tackling him given he’s six foot five, nineteen stone and, as I believe I may have mentioned, can deadlift a third of a ton. Indeed, ball in hand he’s the last word in laxatives. ‘So is he really as tough as he looks?’ I say, heading back to Jones and Cueto for a bit more background. ‘Tougher,’ says Chris Jones, absolutely deadpan. Mark Cueto – sitting next to him – snorts. ‘So you’re actually scared of him, then?’ I say, zeroing in on the smirking England winger. ‘No, of course not,’ scoffs Cueto. ‘Why should I be? I can run faster than him.’
Actually I wouldn’t bet on that. I’d give Cueto the first ten yards but after that it’d be anyone’s race; White Rhino, let us not forget can hit 35mph at full tilt and Andrew Sheridan looks a lot fitter – and a lot bigger – than a White Rhino. In fact the man is just immense – the kind of bloke who could throw a doughnut through a brick wall – and that’s before you get to his neck muscles – he takes a 21 inch collar – which are thicker than anchor chains, neck muscles, need I say, being what loose head props use to lift tight head props out of the scrum.
GS: (Finally throwing the script out of the window) So what’s it like being 6’5’ and nineteen stone and an England rugby player?
AS: (Cautiously) In what sense?
GS: (Completely forgetting that we’re on camera) In the sense of not having to take any shit from anyone.
AS: (Pulling a non-committal sort of face) I’ve never really thought about it.
GS: No, well, you wouldn’t would you? You’re used to being you. But for weedy little people like me, we dream of being Andrew Sheridan just for one day.
AS: (Puzzled) Why?
GS: Well, for a start, there’s three guys I’ve always wanted to beat up and if I could borrow your body for a day, I could do it.
AS: (Finally showing some genuine interest in the conversation) Really? Who are they, then?
You wonder whether this effortlessly polite and affable man – ‘he doffs the world aside and lets it pass’ – has adopted the dry, deadpan routine just to complement the physique. Forget rugby but with all those muscles and monosyllables he could be the finest nightclub bouncer in Christendom.
‘So his nickname is ….?’ (I am back in the dressing room with Jones and Cueto who are now looking at each other like guilty fourth formers.) ‘Sherry,’ says Chris Jones, trying to conceal a smirk and failing miserably. ‘Oh, come on, you can do better than that,’ I say, almost spitting in exasperation. CJ looks offended. ‘No, that’s it. Sherry. That’s what we call him.’ I turn, almost accusingly, to Mark Cueto, who doesn’t even wait for the question. ‘Fat neck,’ he says. ‘Anyone can call him that, he won’t mind.’ I fix him with my steeliest stare. ‘Fat neck or Mr. Fat Neck?’ I ask. ‘No, no,’ says Cueto, ‘fat neck’ll be fine.’
I ask you, just how naïve is Mark Cueto? Does he seriously think I’m going to fall for that one and get my chin shoved up my colon? Stone the crows, we’re talking about a man who once broke a bone in his leg and didn’t notice until the following day. He fractured his jaw in another game and played on for three weeks thinking he had toothache. He might be impervious to pain but I bruise very easily.
That said, though, there are times when even the yellowest journalist has to suck it up and ask the stiletto question and given Cueto – damn him – had handed me the knife, there was nothing else for it.
GS: (Gabbling almost uncontrollably) Okay, here’s what Cueto said, and don’t take this out on me if you don’t like it because it’s what he said I should ask you, his idea not mine, he said, (mouth suddenly drier than a lizard’s lips) call him ‘fat neck’ and he’ll love it because he’ll take it as a compliment, as I said, not something I’m asking per se, just repeating what Cueto said, okay?
AS: (Confused) That’s what we call Cueto.
If the Lions wasted Andrew Sheridan in New Zealand last summer, England don’t look likely to make the same mistake. There is still a bit more art than science about him but in the china shop that is the scrum, he is an absolute bull.
GS: So what is it that you like about the front row?
AS: I’m not sure, really.
GS: There must be something.
AS: (The pause is almost as loud as his words) It’s confrontational, I suppose.
GS: And that’s what you enjoy?
AS: (Dubiously) Yes.
GS: But you don’t strike me as a very confrontational person?
AS: (Confrontationally) Yes, but you don’t know me particularly well, do you?
There’d be an argument, you’d suppose, that’d suggest that Sheridan needs to get a touch more assertive and a lot nastier but Graham Rowntree – an elder of the loose head tribe – disagrees. ‘He’s a different sort of bloke. He’s not a guy who thumps his chest before a game. He’s a bit like Dean Richards, very quiet but he just goes about his business. Plus his tackling is exceptional and he’s a hugely effective clear-out man, which every team needs.’
Andrew’s wife, Siwan, used to play rugby herself as a back-rower for the splendidly-named Chew Valley Cats; his Dad, Dan, worked in the City; his brother, Richard, is a barrister but Andrew, first at Dulwich College and later through England Schoolboys, was always the athlete. ‘I’ve never before seen one player inject so much fear into the opposition,’ says his Dulwich rugby master, Peter Allen. ‘He could just dominate games with his size, speed and strength.’
And not much has changed since. Even in the Premiership, it looks as though the Under Thirteens have got someone’s Dad to fill in at loose-head prop. ‘I know there’s been a lot of talk about him over the past year and what he should be or what he will be and I guess it’s a matter for him now to show what he can really do,’ says Charlie Hodgson. ‘He’s certainly done it in a Sale shirt and it’s a great opportunity for him to do the same for England and I’d be very confident that that’s precisely what he’ll do.’
So here is Mr. Incredible’s chance to reduce Australia to rubble and, at the same time, forge himself an international reputation. Neither task looks to be in any way beyond him.
09 NOVEMBER 2005
PS The following Saturday at Twickenham, Sheridan destroyed Australia almost single-handedly. His opposing prop, Al Baxter, was sin-binned after a sequence of collapsed scrums and his replacement, the luckless Matt Dunning, had to leave the field injured. Sheridan was – simply, gloriously – unplayable.