Scoring a hat-trick against Scotland in my first Six Nations campaign – I think I was the first England player to do so in a quarter of a century and only the third in history – was sweet enough in itself and probably the highlight of my eight-year international career, but it was made all the more special because my newborn first child, Lewis, and my wife were there at Twickenham to see it.
Two of the three tries were relatively straight-forward efforts while, for the other, I put my head down and bulldozed through a couple of tackles. When Mike Blair came across to join me at Brive I took great pleasure in reminding him of how he just bounced off me as the line loomed into view!
My son dug up an old clip on YouTube and showed it to him, which I found hilarious. I helped Mike loads when he first came over to France and it was a running joke that he owed me 10% of his salary. It’s his fault I became a rugby agent!
I was immensely proud to play for my country 38 times and appear in a World Cup, even if it was short-lived. After the disappointment of missing the 2003 World Cup it was fantastic to get into the squad for the next tournament. I did well in the first game against the USA, but the 36-0 loss to South Africa didn’t go to plan and I ended up trying to make up for it too much right at the end, tearing my medial ligament in the process.
A man-of-the-match performance against Ireland was another highlight towards the back-end of my career. As a team, we were under pressure at the time but we played well and I scored a try and made a couple of line breaks as well as defending well, a quality I was renowned for.
Ironically, I hated contact when I first took up the game at Fyling Hall, a small independent school in North Yorkshire. My appetite for tackling grew out of a desire not to let anyone down and during those early years I played in the back row and even had a short stint at hooker. I suppose if I had to pick out one tackle, it would be the one on Cedric Heymans that led to a try for Paul Sackey against France in Paris.
Falcons Academy director Paul McKinnon was the first person who saw something in me as a centre and gave me my big break. I was regarded as one of the cheeky ones, always looking to bring some light relief to any situation. I remember lifting the Tetley’s Bitter Cup and celebrating as if we’d won it at a Press conference previewing the final. I must have been a visionary because we did go on to lift the trophy despite being underdogs against Harlequins. That final, and the one against Sale a few years later, were both memorable matches because they went right down to the wire.
Having slipped down the pecking order with England, I decided to move on after ten great years at Newcastle and sign for Brive on a two-year deal. It was the first time I’d ever moved clubs which was a risk in its own sense and, on top of that, there was the language barrier.
It was a big learning curve in every aspect. We had a caffeine ban before games at Newcastle but, here, they had a perculator in the changing room!
I decided to embrace the good parts of French rugby and life in general. There were highs and lows. Sending your kids to school crying is not easy but, after six months they found their feet, as did I. I only missed one game in my first Top 14 season which was huge because they tended to rotate the squad. They asked me to extend my stay and I experienced both relegation and promotion. Six years later, we’re still here and loving life in the Corrèze.