The England second-row has finally found his stride in Test rugby this year.
England’s stunning performance against Australia at Twickenham during the Autumn internationals left many of their long-suffering fans – and the media – shocked by how well the team had played. Manager Martin Johnson wasn’t surprised, however, telling me: “That performance didn’t come from the clouds, you know. Look at Paris, look at Sydney – it was coming.” Johnson as usual, may have a point, but even he must have been taken aback by the form of Tom Palmer in that victory over the Wallabies.
Second-row Palmer has been one of the enigmas of the England set-up ever since making his Test debut in 2001; he had bags of potential but he just wasn’t delivering the world-class performances we all knew that he was capable of.However, Palmer’s graduation onto the world stage started in the summer, when he first formed his partnership with Courtney Lawes in England’s one-point win in Sydney, and his best performance in the red-rose jersey came against the same side five months later.
The identity of the opponents can give some clue to Palmer’s recent form, as could the new law directives that referees have been working under since the middle of the Six Nations. Quick ball is now king in a sport that had been dragged through a season of kick-tennis that sent us all to sleep. And a fast game suits Palmer perfectly; with the ball now in play more than ever before, he’s able to get his hands on it and maraud through the midfield.
Alongside Lawes, who looks good enough to keep his place in the side for the next ten years, Palmer also calls the lineouts. And while his running of the set-piece doesn’t reach the A+ levels of Steve Borthwick, he got better and better as the autumn Tests wore on. He has clearly benefited enormously from the extra time the players now have with England, especially as it has brought him into contact with renowned knee specialist Bill Knowles, who put the careers of Richard Hill, Austin Healey and footballer Michael Owen – amongst others – back on track. Although Palmer doesn’t have a current knee injury, Knowles’s grasp of the human body has proved crucial. “I’ve had some knee issues in the past and he had me doing some exercises to get my glutes working better and that seems to have helped me feel fitter than I have for a while,” says Palmer.
Palmer, who has bulked up by around nine pounds in the past year, has endured a stop-start international career – there was a five-year gap between his first and second caps – but he has made a significant breakthrough in the last six months, starting England’s last half-dozen Tests. And he is delighted to have Lawes in the boiler room with him, saying: “Courtney and I haven’t played 50 times together, but we’re starting to establish ourselves as a partnership. Hopefully that will continue through the Six Nations. We complement each other well and are a good match. We’re similar players and the way the game is going is suited to how we play.
“It’s partly down to a change in attitude of the coaches, in terms of which players they want, and the new laws. In order to encourage open and attacking play, you need guys who are mobile and can carry the ball. I like it when I get my hands on the ball. Our game plan at the moment suits players like me.”
Palmer is a cosmopolitan fellow – no one could accuse him of letting the grass grow under his feet. Born in Haringey, North London, he grew up in Scotland and then spent 18 months receiving a world-class rugby education in Otago as a teenager. His professional career began at Leeds, then he joined Wasps before moving to Paris at the start of last season, ensuring that he had all the correct release clauses in his Stade Français contract so he could make England training sessions.
“I’m enjoying my time in Paris, and it’s been good for my career – a good experience for me,” says Palmer. “I’m just happy that I’m playing well and getting picked for England.” England were rightly delighted by their performance against Australia last month, but a hard-fought victory over Samoa as well as a 21-11 defeat in their final Test against South Africa meant that there was a feeling of disappointment at the end of the autumn series. But Palmer believes the team will have learnt a lot from all the matches.
“If you look at the whole series we played some good rugby,” he says. “For me the best thing has been the experience I’ve picked up. I believe the more you play at a high level, the better you get, and these six starts have shown me that the more I play for England, the better I’ll get. “Apart from the Australia game, as a team we’ve been let down by a lack of clinical finishing. Even against South Africa we were in their 22 for long periods and didn’t come away with anything. At the top level you can’t afford to do that – you have to keep taking your points when you have the opportunities.”
Palmer has certainly taken his opportunity this year and should do the same in the Six Nations.
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