England v Fiji: Alex Goode gets the stage his talent deserves
The Saracens full-back will offer something different to England at Twickenham this weekend as they look to extend their winning run to 12 matches
Some players never win the haul of caps befitting their talent. John Hall, the irrepressible Bath flanker, accrued only 20 caps across a ten-year Test career and James Simpson-Daniel, Gloucester’s bag of tricks, managed only half that tally in the Noughties.
Injury is usually to blame but not in the case of Alex Goode, who this weekend wins only his 21st cap when England host Fiji in the second game of the Old Mutual Wealth series.
Since the Saracens full-back made his Test debut on the 2012 tour of South Africa, Mike Brown has made 43 starts to Goode’s 13 and, to be fair to the feisty Harlequin, he has often been outstanding.
However, Goode offers something different, with his capacity to act as a second receiver heightened by many years of playing in the fly-half shirt.
It’s easy to forget that he played in England’s 2008 U20 Grand Slam team as a ten, partnering Ben Youngs at half-back in the first two games and Joe Simpson in the other three.
Goode was also a promising footballer in his youth, playing at Ipswich Town’s academy before deciding he could do without the tedious journeys – in the days before a bypass was built – to and from his home in Cambridge.
“I’m honest enough to know that I was very good at my age and in my area, but could I have made it as a professional footballer? I don’t know,” says Goode, at 28 three years younger than Brown. “Did I want to make it? I loved playing rugby with my mates all the time.
“If football was on in the afternoon (after rugby in the morning) I’d play it, I never said no to it, but they felt that football shouldn’t be second best and for every other kid it was (first choice), their parents and grandparents would come and watch. My mum would throw me out the door with muddy knees and I’d go and play and that was it.
“I was very competitive, so I loved winning every challenge, going box to box, but I was willing to go out and practise my goalkicking in the mornings and evenings. Would I have done that with football?”
A Man Utd fan, Goode ended up playing for a local side in Cambridge after stopping with Ipswich. “I was playing centre-forward and scoring goals and was just relaxed. I knew I wasn’t trying to do it full-time, I was just enjoying playing with my mates.
“It was an amazingly different outlook in that sense. I knew at 15, 16 that rugby was something I wanted to do. I knew Eastern Counties, London & South-East, England, that was the kind of route I’d rather go down.”
Football’s loss was rugby’s gain and Goode’s career has brought plenty of rewards, notwithstanding his limited opportunities on the national stage.
He is now the longest-serving player in Europe’s best club team, having made his first league start for Saracens in Richard Hill’s final match in 2008, and many expected him to feature heavily for England long before he won last season’s Premiership Player of the Year award.
BT Sport’s Austin Healey knows a class player when he sees one and spoke glowingly of Goode’s vision and decision-making when covering a Saracens match earlier this season.
“He has the ability to reset all their play when receiving kicks,” said the former England back. “He picks off dog-legs really well, more often than not he beats the first defender and if he doesn’t he buys time.
“He’s very elusive. He buys enough time for Saracens to reset for their next play and get one of the Vunipolas probably carrying into your midfield and off you go again. He’s absolutely intrinsic to the success of Saracens.”
Goode will be pleased to have the Vunipola brothers for company at Twickenham this weekend, because it may be his only chance to convince Eddie Jones that he warrants being more than a peripheral figure.
He has won only one cap under the current England coach, off the bench in Rome, and his aim will be to handle the aerial threats with the same aplomb as Brown whilst displaying the kicking and distribution skills seen so frequently at Allianz Park.
At club level he has forged a tremendous understanding with Owen Farrell, with the two able to interchange at will in attack to put runners through holes. “Owen’s been shooting the lights out,” says Goode.
Before Farrell, Charlie Hodgson held court and when I ask about the impact the Premiership’s recently retired record scorer had on him, Goode is almost reverential in his reply.
“He’s the greatest fly-half who’s played in the Premiership. The way he is, his character, composure, he was brilliant to play with and be around,” begins Goode. “He’s a wizard with the ball. I’ve not seen a guy with hands like that.
“I heard a great story from Chris Jack when he came over here (to play for Saracens). He said in his time with the All Blacks they had never changed their defensive system, but when they played England and Charlie played against them, they changed it specifically because of the way he played.
“And in my experience of playing against people, Jonny (Wilkinson) was great with Toulon but Charlie played with a Sale team that wasn’t a Premiership-winning team and I’ve never been given the run-around at full-back like that. He had the ball on a string and I didn’t get near it. He was just brilliant.”
Goode has learnt from such masters, just as they have learnt from him, and how satisfying it would be to see him give a performance that does him justice against Fiji.
He is one of five changes to the side that beat the Springboks 37-21 last weekend, with Teimana Harrison replacing Saints team-mate Tom Wood in the back row, Wasps’ Elliot Daly shifting to wing to accommodate Bath’s Jonathan Joseph at 13 and Semesa Rokodugini, also of Bath, earning a second cap and joining the huge number of Fijian-born wings playing for a different country this weekend.
Fiji have not fared too well at Twickenham, losing 54-12 four years ago and 35-11 at last year’s World Cup, but head coach John McKee has promised that his team will take the field with “fire in their bellies and ice in their minds”. It should be a cracker.
England A Goode; S Rokodugini, J Joseph, O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford, B Youngs; M Vunipola, D Hartley (capt), D Cole, J Launchbury, C Lawes, C Robshaw, T Harrison, B Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 J George, 17 J Marler, 18 K Sinckler, 19 C Ewels, 20 N Hughes, 21 D Care, 22 B Te’o, 23 H Slade.
Fiji M Talebula; B Masilevu, A Tikoirotuma, A Vulivuli, N Nadolo; J Matavesi, S Vularika; C Maafu, S Koto Vuli, M Saulo, A Ratuniyarawa, L Nakarawa, D Waqaniburotu, P Yato, A Qera (capt).
Replacements: 16 T Talemaitoga, 17 P Ravai, 18 Leeroy Atalifo, 19 Nemia Soqeta, 20 Naulia Dawai, 21 Eremasi Radrodro, 22 Nikola Matawalu, 23 Kini Murimurivalu.