Has Tait's time to shine finally arrived?
February 5, 2010
Wales' Gavin Henson hammers England's Mathew Tait during their Six Nations meeting at the Millennium Stadium in 2005 © Getty Images
On this day in 2005, a fresh-faced Mathew Tait was handed a harsh rugby lesson at the hands of Wales' Gavin Henson. Two thumping tackles ensured Tait's international debut was memorable for all the wrong reasons but now, five years on, he has been handed his latest shot at redemption - a chance to erase that dark day once and for all.
It was a brave call by the then coach Andy Robinson to throw the 18-year-old Tait into the cauldron that is the Millennium Stadium. Wales' magnificent home is a formidable venue on a Six Nations match day, especially if England are in town, with 74,000 fans breathing down your neck, baying for blood and ready to pounce on any visible weakness. And they got what they were after that day with Henson throwing Tait around like a rag doll leaving the youngster and those who had heralded him as the next big thing more than a little red faced.
"I have never been afraid to select young talented players if they are ready," said Robinson following his decision to promote Tait. Sadly, he was found to be wrong in his assessment and Tait's debut ended with his substitution. Tait was immediately cast into the international wilderness and would not win another cap for over a year. The experience may have broken another player but credit to Tait for the way he accepted the reality that he was perhaps not ready for that step up and he went back to continue his rugby education on the domestic stage. Flashes of brilliance encouraged those who were convinced that Tait had something special but he took on a somewhat nomadic existence in the international set-up, serving his country at fullback, wing and centre.
Interestingly, it was a fate that Henson also had to endure as he attempted to make his name on the international stage following his debut in 2001. By the time of the Cardiff clash, which was also his introduction to the Six Nations, he had also bounced around the backline but whereas he suffered Rugby World Cup disappointment by being passed over for the 2003 tournament, Tait reclaimed his international status in the build-up to the 2007 showpiece, given the freedom to play under the guidance of coach Brian Ashton. In his time away from the spotlight, Tait had worked on his craft most notably in the shortened version of the game, starring for England Sevens in Hong Kong and at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
England's unlikely run to the Paris finale had many scratching their heads and they were eventually undone by South Africa - but it could have been so different had Tait been able to cap off a scintillating break just after the re-start with the score his ingenuity deserved. Springbok Victor Matfield denied him one of the tries of the tournament and the chance to etch his name into the collective memory of England's rugby fans.
Tait's quest to establish himself in and England shirt has always been plagued by accusations that he simply does not possess the physical stature to thrive on the biggest stage. His critics suggest that he may well have the skill set and pace required by the modern player he lacks the power that is at the core of the modern game. As a guide, according to the Statsguru archive, Tait is almost two stone lighter, and the not so small matter of four inches shorter, than Will Greenwood who filled the No.13 shirt so superbly during an eight-year international career that coincided with the dawn of professionalism.
Tait's efforts to shrug off concerns about his physicality were not helped by injury, his choirboy looks or the lack of an extended run in one position. The picture of a bloodied Tait being driven from the field in a medical car having been hammered by the All Blacks in 2008 only served to spark more sympathy. But his time on the sidelines over recent years has not been wasted with the bulked up Tait now measuring up to his opposite number this weekend - Wales' James Hook. But it is Hook's centre partner - the 6ft 3in and almost 17st Jamie Roberts - who is most likely to scrutinise any shortcomings in Tait's all round game.
Henson was Wales' match-winner on that fateful day in Cardiff - landing a spectacular late penalty to fire the hosts to a morale-boosting victory that would be the first leg in a Grand Slam campaign. But as these two old foes prepare to square up once again it is he who finds himself in the wilderness with a succession of injuries and a lack of form forcing him to re-assess his career. It is a painful process, a fact that Tait can vouch for but the Englishman is also living proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Four years ago the opportunity came too soon for Tait but Martin Johnson's selection for the Wales clash and the side's pledge to open things up hints that maybe his time to shine has finally come. Mis-used and under-utilised up until now, Johnson has hinted that Tait is set to be handed an extended run at the heart of a refreshingly expansive England approach. There is little doubt that on his day he can be one of the most exciting and dynamic backs of his generation but it is now up to Tait, on the occasion of his 24th birthday, to repay that faith by being the catalyst for England's re-emergence as a world power.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.