IT TAKES some believing, quite frankly, but Darren Garforth swears it is true. Far from being a natural-born prop who rucked and mauled his way around the Wendy houses of the East Midlands and drank in the black arts of scrummaging with his mother's milk, he appears to have spent his formative sporting years as one of life's pretty boys. "I played full- back for the school rugby team and centre-forward for a soccer side in Coventry called Folly Lane," he says proudly. A footballer? Garforth? Pull the other one. A football, maybe, but surely not a footballer.
"No, really," he insists, an expression of purest innocence radiating from his war-torn front-rower's mug. "If it hadn't have been for a football match being cancelled, I might never have played serious rugby at all. Some of my mates happened to drive by that very afternoon and they asked me if I fancied a run around. Suddenly, I was having the time of my life, wrestling away with some bloke in the scrums one minute and sharing a beer or two with him the next. This, I thought, is my sort of game."
And it remains Garforth's sort of game, even though his particular route to the top has been positively strewn with potholes and boulders. A spherical prop in the grand English tradition of Colin Smart and Gareth Chilcott, "The Baron" was five weeks short of his 31st birthday when he made his first two-minute excursion into the international arena - understandably, he had wondered whether he would ever make it - and six weeks into his 33rd year when he assumed his Test career had been firmly and finally laid to rest. "When I failed to make last summer's southern hemisphere tour, I thought it was all over," he admitted this week. Since when, Garforth has upgraded his fitness, improved his scrummaging, tripled his 80-minute tackle count, cemented his place on England's tight- head and pocketed a man of the match Krugerrand for inspiring his countrymen to a famous victory over the record- equalling Springboks. Not half bad for a thirtysomething has-been with a rearranged visage. "Very nice, that man of the match business, but to be perfectly honest with you, it's not the sort of thing that means a great deal to me," he says. So what does mean a great deal? "Simply the fact that I'm in the England side and playing the best rugby of my life. I was bitterly disappointed at missing out on the tour, but Clive Woodward was very fair and up-front with me. He told me to go away and get myself sorted, which I think I've done. "You know inside when you're really fit, when you've put in the hard work and made the sacrifices. That's how I feel right now. Ready for anything." Garforth is a walking, talking justification of professional rugby. Back in the dark ages, he would work a six and a half day week on building sites in Leicester and Coventry and Nuneaton. He was a scaffolder by trade; legend has it that he once described himself as a "tubular executive", but he denies it. "Cracking line, that one," he chuckles, "but I'm afraid it was someone else's. Still, it made me sound very important, so I was quite happy to associate myself with the description." There are many aspects of the amateur era that make him laugh, but he readily accepts that he would never have fulfilled his potential under the old rules and regulations. …