Nick Cain talks to Andrew Sheridan about his ongoing ambition to play for England and the Lions

Andrew SheridanAndrew Sheridan is in the form of his life, the main axle in the Toulon juggernaut that is smashing the heavyweight packs in the French Top 14 to smithereens and has roared to the top of the Top 14.
Better still, he wants to play for England, and for the 2013 Lions. The only impediment is that the Bromley-born giant, who is in his propping prime at 32, and is the most destructive loose-head scrummager England have produced in the professional era, has been put out to grass by the RFU since his move from the Premiership to new pastures on the French Mediterannean coast over the summer.
With the Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders on the near horizon, most coaches would give their right arm to have a loose-head of Sheridan’s world-class credentials to give their pack sledgehammer impact ahead of the autumn series, but England’s Stuart Lancaster says Non!.
Channel-hopping is not something the England head coach or his RFU employers approve of, and Lancaster said this week in a radio interview that there is no way back for Sheridan, or any of the exports, bar in an “exceptional” set of circumstances.
Lancaster’s predecessor, Martin Johnson, took a more pragmatic view, calling the French-based Jonny Wilkinson, Tom Palmer and James Haskell into the 2011 World Cup squad. Given the proximity of France, with Toulon only a two-hour flight away, and Top 14 games easily scrutinised either live or on television, it is inevitable that by excluding players of the calibre of Sheridan, and his Toulon team-mates, Delon and Steffon Armitage, the RFU’s stance is seen as cutting off their nose to spite their face.
England appear to be self-harming when you consider Sheridan’s new lease of life at Toulon after undergoing four career-threatening shoulder operations in his final three seasons at Sale. He has started in all Toulon’s seven wins in the French league this season, and some would argue that it is no co-incidence that he was rested when the club suffered their only defeat of the campaign so far, away to the champions, Toulouse.
Add his current exploits to his past track-record and Sheridan’s credentials are peerless. He will be forever remembered for his feat of buckling two Wallaby props in succession on his first start for England at Twickenham in 2005, with Al Baxter binned for continuous collapsing and Matt Dunning stretchered off (with no lasting injury), and he was equally damaging to Australia’s scrum in their shock quarter-final defeat in the 2007 World Cup.

Scrum time: Andrew Sheridan practicing the scrum during an England training session
Scrum time: Andrew Sheridan practicing the scrum during an England training session

Sheridan says he sees Lancaster’s viewpoint, but asked if he would still play for England his answer resonates:  “I would, if I was selected. I haven’t retired because if the opportunity presents itself I would still play. While I’m still playing at this level, if I was wanted or required within the IRB sanctioned period, I would be released to play. I’m still available – but I know that it’s unlikely. By playing outside the Premiership your chances are vastly reduced, which is only right in terms of the money the RFU puts into the EPS. There are also some good young players coming through, including props like Harelquins’ Joe Marler. It makes sense for the RFU to keep a close eye on all aspects of an England player’s development, and that’s easier to manage if they are playing in England. They pay a lot of money for players in the EPS, so I understand why.”
Sheridan says that Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, has not been in touch since he returned injured from the 2011 World Cup, but he is not asking for special favours. “Things move on, and once you sign to play in France you know the effect it can have. But I felt this was the time to make a move, and opportunities like the one at Toulon don’t crop up all the time. Two years from now it might not have been on the table, and at my age, having won 40 caps and with a wife and young daughter to consider, the timing was right. If I was 10 years younger and heavily involved in the England squad it might have been different.”
When it comes to the 2013 Lions, Sheridan is equally clear-cut. “I would never turn it down. But, at the same time, I’m pretty realistic, and I know that while I’m not involved at international level the chances are pretty slim.”
However, the autumn series comes first – and Lancaster’s job is to produce a winning England team bar nothing, using any and every bit of talent at his disposal, irrespective of whether it is in the south of France or the Falklands. The unease that he is not selecting from his strongest hand is highlighted further by England’s grim record at Twickenham against the SANZAR nations, with 11 defeats in 15 Tests since 2004.
There is an overwhelming sense that however well Sheridan plays in the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup – and he was as impressive as ever in Toulon’s bonus point win over Montpellier last weekend – he has been written out of the England script.
By contrast, Sheridan is cherished at Toulon. Bernard Laporte, the Toulon and former France coach, has coveted Sheridan ever since he came over to check out the French contingent at Sale eight years ago and was bowled over by the way the 6ft 4ins, 19st loose-head wrecked the Northampton scrum. Soon afterwards Laporte was forced to look on, as, having mangled the Australian scrum, Sheridan helped to shunt his France side out of the 2007 World Cup semi-finals.
Over the summer Laporte eventually got his man, enlisting Sheridan to the Toulon cause, while assembling the mightiest veteran front five to be found anywhere on the planet. Opponents are still reeling from the onslaught of Laporte’s ‘Old Guard’, with France hooker Sebastien Bruno, All Black tight-head Carl Hayman, and a second row of Springbok legend Bakkies Botha and the indestructible English icon Simon Shaw completing the crew.
Andrew Sheridan
Star signing: Sheridan joined Toulon last Summer

One of Laporte’s biggest successes has been in reversing the running order established by the 2009 Lions, where Sheridan was left out in the first Test against the Springboks – when the Lions scrum was wrecked – in favour of Gethin Jenkins, before coming off the bench late on in the second Test, and eventually starting in the emphatic third Test victory. At Toulon it is Sheridan who has started every Top 14 win this season, and the mobile Welsh No.1, who also joined Toulon over the summer, who is introduced for the last 15 minutes when the heavy guns have pounded the opposition.
It is a highly effective ploy, and the benefits to England of Marler’s dynamism being employed in a similar way in the final quarter while learning from Sheridan in training, could be gold-dust.
Sheridan is not the most demonstrative of men, but he is revelling in being part of Toulon’s power pack. “It is too early to say if this is the most powerful pack I have played in, but it is hard to think of a better one – it’s got a really good balance to it. Seb Bruno, who I know from Sale, and Carl Hayman are superb scrummagers. We get on very well – where Carl is quiet but gets on and does his job extremely well, Bakkies is a very humorous guy who has people in stitches a lot of the time with his amusing quips. Obviously, he is a very competitive, aggressive forward and to find someone who is so genial, friendly and humorous off the pitch was a bit unexpected.”
Sheridan says he is less concerned with starting ahead of Jenkins than he is in staying fit after his shoulder troubles. “I don’t know that they’ll ever be as good as new after four operations – two to each shoulder – and I don’t want to tempt fate, but it’s pretty physical over here, so they get a regular workout. It’s been nice to start the games not so much because of the competition between me and Gethin, but because after my injuries it’s just very pleasing to put a run of nine or 10 games in a row together. But it’s a long season, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Sheridan says that while he does not intend to compete with Shaw, who is still going strong at 39, he has no immediate plans to retire – and you can understand his reasoning given that he will be 35 at the 2015 World Cup, whereas Shaw was 38 when he played in the 2011 tournament.
“I have no plans to hang up my boots. When you are in your early 20s, you might say I’ll finish when I’m 30. But when you are past 30, and it’s still a great lifestyle, and you are fit and able to play a sport you enjoy so much, then you want to keep playing as long as you can.”
Like his old England team-mate Wilkinson, Sheridan has been rejuvenated by life in Toulon, and he says he would like to give something back. “It is the most intense, fanatical support I’ve known. Rugby is everything to the people in Toulon and it spurs you to want to bring them some success. There are RCT (Rugby Club Toulon) badges in every car, and at the moment everything’s all right because I haven’t been on the losing side yet. So, I’ve enjoyed my free coffees at the local boulangerie!
“I was at Sale for nine years and I still look for their results because I still know a lot of people at the club.  But this is a different climate and a different rugby challenge. We have players from all over, but I don’t think it’s that difficult to gel as a team, because it is about everyone doing their job.
“It would be nice to win something, and the French Championship is the big thing for everyone in Toulon. The players are very well integrated, and there’s a great spirit. The English guys here are enjoying it and trying to contribute to the club being successful.”
Sheridan says that Toulon must build on the momentum from their opening Heineken Cup victory over Montpellier against Cardiff today. “We had a very good start against Montpellier and an away win over Cardiff, would stand us in good stead – but they have some good players.”
Sheridan says that life outside rugby accentuates the positives: “It’s a great climate down here – it’s still in the early 20s in mid October – and a lovely lifestyle. I am also interested in wine, and viticulture, which is something I hope to look into more after rugby. I already have my WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) intermediate and advanced awards, and I’m hoping to do the diploma. I would like to get involved in the wine trade, and in this region there are some good opportunities to see first-hand how the wine industry works.
“I still write the occasional song and play the guitar while enjoying a glass of wine. But it’s something that I tend to do away from rugby as a solitary interest or with family and a few friends – I’m not a big performer.”
You wouldn’t want to make a habit of contradicting him, but, when it comes to performing on rugby’s big stage, prop idols don’t come any bigger – or better – than Andrew Sheridan.

2 Comments

  1. If I read one more time how the 2009 Lions were great I think I will die of shame for the poor ignorant twit who writes it. The 2009 Lions were losers. They lost the first two practice matches against the Bokke and narrowly beat the Bokke B team in a dead rubber and for that some UK coach got a knighthood. Lord Ted, with a dysfunctional Anglo-Celtic side beat a full strength Australian team and had to wait until he won a Barnes free RWC Lottery to get his. The Lions fill the stadia for the SH real teams when they play warm up matches for the main event; THE RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP! Most of their supporters would not be let into the country normally as they tend to get involved in a lot of drunken petty crime while up in the best parts of the world.

  2. I think it is crazy that the English side can be so picky about players. If we had world class players to replace the likes of Sheridan then fair enough, don’t pick him due to his decision to play in France. But we don’t have anyone better, therefore he should play! Us fans pay £80 a ticket for international games (yes £1 per minute!!) and we want to see the best player and best side possible.

Leave a Comment