He may be mature, he may be sensible, he may be known as the wise old head of the Leicester midfield, but Anthony Allen is keen to point out that he’s only 24. This, it seems, is something that the outside world, and even some of his team-mates, can struggle to come to terms with.
“I suppose I’ve been around for a while now,” he says, with a rueful grin. “But it’s still a bit strange. I’ve been here at Leicester two years now and some of the lads still say, ‘Are you really only 24?’ It’s weird.”
The reason that Allen has to endure these misconceptions, the reason that he has “been around for a while”, is the two International appearances that thrust him prematurely to prominence as long ago as 2006. A couple of months after he had turned 20 and little more than a year since making his senior debut for Gloucester, Allen was chosen by Andy Robinson, then England coach, to play at centre against New Zealand and Argentina. He was then discarded and is still waiting for a third cap, but his career has been revived by his move to the Tigers. One of their most consistent performers this season, he won the Players’ Player of the Year award and has put himself firmly in the frame for a place in Martin Johnson’s World Cup squad. At 24, Allen is a little young to be seen as a has-been.
After a season of otherwise fleet-footed progress, England have remained stuck in the slow lane as far as their centres are concerned. More charitably, they have kept faith with the balance of a side that favours heavy goods vehicles such as Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall in midfield, rather than sleeker, more creative models. It is this lack of creativity that troubles many supporters, concerned that England may lack the skill in midfield to bring the firepower of Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto into play.
Allen is not a flashy player – the paeans usually include worthy adjectives such as reliable, consistent and hard-working – but he has quicker feet than England’s incumbent centres and, crucially, much better distribution skills. Matt O’Connor, Leicester’s Australian head coach, has become a fervent fan, saying: “I’d pick him for England at 12 because of his ability to use his feet, to communicate and to distribute. Defensively he’s outstanding too. There’s no doubt he’ll get another crack at Test level. I’d like to see him in that role with four or five Tests under his belt so that he can show his wares.”
But does Allen possess enough physical presence to persuade Johnson that he wouldn’t be leaving England underpowered in midfield against, say, Sonny Bill Williams or Jamie Roberts? The talk is of centres being in the 100kg club nowadays and, at 91kg (14st 5lb), Allen is around 10kg lighter than Hape and Tindall. “You’re always trying to get stronger, but I’m happy with how I am,” says Allen. “I’ve developed a lot strength-wise in the last couple of years and I feel I can hold my own with anyone now.”
Almost five years on from his Test debut, Allen readily concedes that he wasn’t able to hold his own as a callow 20-year-old.
He was thrown into an England team that had lost its previous five matches, to play against an All Black side showing its habitual menace the year before a World Cup. It was not a gentle introduction to international rugby. He started well, making a break that led to England’s first try, but then delayed a pass that gave Joe Rokocoko a 55-metre interception try. Later, he was handed off dismissively (right) as Dan Carter scored in the All Blacks’ 41-20 victory. Six days later, England suffered a humiliating 25-18 defeat to Argentina.
“It’s a shame that it happened when it did,” says Allen. “I don’t think I was ready. I suppose you don’t really know that until you’re put into that environment, but it was definitely too early. If I was chucked in now, I’d be way more prepared.”
Allen was not the only centre whose longer-term potential was jeopardised by premature selection under Robinson. The year before, Mathew Tait had been chosen to face Wales the day before his 19th birthday, something he took a while to recover from. Next season, the two players’ roads to redemption will converge as Tait joins Leicester from Sale. “Mat’s done well since that difficult start,” says Allen. “He’s bounced back from the disappointments and won 30-odd caps. That’s something for me to aim at. He’ll be an asset to the club at Leicester.”
It seems unlikely that Allen will remain a two-cap wonder for much longer. For the World Cup warm-up matches against Wales and Ireland in August, Johnson will surely shuffle his midfield options to see what a more creative player can add to England’s game. Those adjectives used to describe Allen – reliable, consistent, hard-working – are qualities prized by the England manager.
If Allen doesn’t make it this year, he will still be around for the World Cup on home soil in 2015, when he should be somewhere near his prime. Even in 2019, Allen will only be the same age as Tindall is now. He is only 24, remember.
Check out his try versus Bath that was voted the 2011 Try of the Season at the Leicester Tigers Supporters End of Season Awards.
This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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