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Big Ted gears up for Aussie showdown

Tom Fordyce | 19:10 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

There aren't many English sportsmen who can make grown Australian men cry, but Andrew Sheridan is one of them.

It makes it all the stranger that, when he's not playing rugby, this scrum-smashing, 19-stone giant comes across as bashful as Bambi.

Sheridan's deeds against Australia on his full debut in 2005 and in last autumn's World Cup quarter-final were so terrifyingly destructive, so utterly brutal, that you expect him to be a raw-meat eating monster off the pitch as well.

Instead, he displays all the aggression of a novice nun. Rather than wrestling bears and bashing through walls, the man his team-mates call Big Ted likes nothing more than strumming country and folk songs on his acoustic guitar.

"I've probably written about 25 songs now," he tells me politely at England's training headquarters.

sheridan.jpg

"I like artists like James Taylor and Ray LaMontagne, although obviously I'm not comparing myself to them.

"I've played the guitar for about eight years now. Your fingers get a fair amount of punishment playing rugby - some players can't really bend them by the end of their careers, so I have to keep them flexible. It can get quite hard on the strings."

This is the same man who can bench-press 500lb (roughly three normal-sized men), and who caused so much damage to the Aussie front row three years ago that neither of his opposite numbers were able to stay on the field.

First Al Baxter, who'd spend most of the match with his nose burrowed into the Twickenham turf, was sin-binned for consistently and desperately collapsing the scrum. Then Matt Dunning, stepping in to fill the gap, lasted just one set-piece before being stretchered off the field.

"I don't start swearing or jumping around or anything," says Sheridan. "I find the song-writing really relaxing and calming, and then on the pitch a different side of my personality comes out. It's just the way I am."

In the flesh Sheridan looks spookily like a musclebound, body-builder version of Morrissey. Ahead of this weekend's meeting with England, the Australians must fear that it'll be a case of Bigmuscles Strikes Again.

England manager Martin Johnson was staying cautious at his news conference on Tuesday, too experienced to give an Australian team any more motivation than it needs, but questions inevitably centred on the battle up front.

"The scrummage used to be a weakness for them, but it is not any more," he said diplomatically.

Aussie hooker Stephen Moore tried to brush off talk of the 'S' word, but almost contradicted himself as he did so.

"We've not spoken about Sheridan any more than we would about any opponent," he said. "We have worked hard on our scrummaging, and there is no doubt it has improved a lot."

That might be true. Australia's pack surprised many with its performances in places during the Tri-Nations. Trouble is, we were also told before the World Cup quarter-final that it had been reborn, and look what happened next.

Australia have named their side for Saturday's match, and Baxter is still on the scene, with Dunning on the bench. As the skinny version of Morrissey might say, stop me if you've heard this one before.

Johnson also denied that his selection of Phil Vickery at tight-head prop was anything more than a reflection of Vickery's physical freshness and old-hand experience, but the symbolism will not be lost on the Wallabies scrum.

Vickery is the last remaining survivor from the World Cup final win of almost exactly five years ago. He also propped with Sheridan in those demolition jobs in 2005 and 2007; both men were absent when Australia beat England twice in both 2006 and 2004.

For an Aussie pack comprehensively dismantled on the latter occasions, it must be like coming up against a pair of Terminators. Whenever you think they've gone, whatever you try against them, they keep coming back to get you, eyes blazing, weapons firing.

I remember chatting to some Australian fans in Marseille before the game last October. They were utterly sure their side would triumph - and to be fair, nothing had happened in that tournament so far to suggest they might be wrong.

Even at that stage, however, they were in awe of Sheridan. That was the legacy of 2005.

After the game, and England's Sheridan-inspired shock win, the mere mention of his name was enough to have them bawling into their bouillabaisse.

It was the way England cricket fans used to feel about Shane Warne - that sense of dread whenever he took the field, the utter conviction that he had the voodoo touch over them.

Big Ted being the way he is, however, he looks genuinely shocked when I tell him.

"Really? They really said that?"

He shakes his head in wonder. "That's a big compliment coming from Australians. That's a really good thing to hear."

Sheridan doesn't always get the same respect from supporters of other nations. Those two matches against the Wallabies were undeniably the best of his international career, and there's sometimes the criticism that he doesn't produce those sort of prop-pulverising performances consistently enough.

The next three weeks, with the Springboks and All Blacks also due to visit Twickenham, give him the chance to prove the naysayers wrong.

If he does, just don't expect him to make a song and dance about it. Well - not a dance, anyway.


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