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Page last updated at 06:23 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Nervous wait for England's newest star

By Simon Austin

Delon Armitage
Armitage was named England's player of the autumn by fans

As England's brightest light of a gloomy autumn, you could forgive Delon Armitage for thinking he is now a fixture in Martin Johnson's team.

But not a bit of it. The affable 25-year-old says he is sweating on his place in the side ahead of England's Six Nations opener against Italy on 7 February.

"With the likes of Ben Foden and Olly Morgan in there, it's going to be really tough competition at full-back," Armitage told BBC Sport.

"If I do get the chance, I'm just going to play every game as if it's my last for England."

While such modesty is admirable, Armitage should have little reason to worry. He was magnificent during the autumn internationals - secure under the high ball, solid in the tackle and incisive in attack - and should be a shoo-in for the Azzurri's visit to Twickenham.

But Armitage's refusal to take anything for granted is understandable when you consider the number of obstacles he had to negotiate before donning an England jersey.

Born in Trinidad - where he says there's "no such thing as rugby" - he developed a passion for the game when he moved to north London after his mother Vera had met his step-father, John Armitage, on the Caribbean island.

The family relocated again in 1996, to Roquefort-les-Pins near Nice in the south of France, and Armitage's rugby education moved up a notch.

DELON ARMITAGE FACTFILE
Delon Armitage
Born: 15 December, 1983
Position: Full-back/centre
Club: London Irish
Premiership: played 79; pts 161
England debut: v Pacific Islanders, 8 Nov 2008
International points: 6

"It was very physical and that helped me a lot," he said. "French rugby was a lot tougher and more aggressive, you really had to learn how to look after yourself. Along with the French emphasis on skills, it made me a much better player."

Armitage almost turned his back on the game when he was rejected by France's Under-16 side and told he was too small to ever make it as a professional.

When he was 17 he moved back to England in a bid to make it as a professional and managed to secure a contract with London Irish two years' later.

He soon made a name for himself with his powerful running, as well as his fiery temper, which once led his London Irish coach Toby Booth to say forlornly: "I've never known a back get so many yellow cards".

Last summer, after being left out of the squads for both the senior tour to New Zealand and the Churchill Cup in Canada, Armitage was beginning to think the Guinness Premiership would be the pinnacle of his achievements.

"At that stage, I thought I'd never play for England," he said. "I was an outsider and didn't get any calls from the management. The guys who went on the tours were the ones that Martin Johnson spoke to."

Everything changed in the weeks leading up to England's opening November international, against the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham, when full-backs Mathew Tait and Nick Abendanon both suffered injuries, and Josh Lewsey was sent back to his club Wasps.

They sent up a high ball, I caught it and that was it, bang... suddenly I felt at home in an England shirt

Delon Armitage

Armitage, not considered among the top 64 players picked for Martin Johnson's first elite and second-string Saxons squads, was catapulted into the team and named man of the match after an assured debut.

His dart past club team-mate Sailosi Tagicakibau and pass inside for Paul Sackey to score was just one cameo in an electric performance.

Johnson was uncharacteristically effusive in his praise. "I've just told Delon I don't think I have ever seen a better debut," he said.

It was difficult to believe Armitage had been wracked by nerves and uncertainty on the morning of the match.

"It was pretty scary," he admits. "I couldn't eat lunch and a protein shake was the only thing I could stomach. On the way to the stadium I had all these thoughts going through my head, wondering if I was good enough to play for England.

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's Simon Austin

"So I kept telling myself 'this is your chance, go out there, play your own game and give it your best shot'.

"Within seconds of the kick-off they sent up a high ball, I caught it and that was it, bang. Suddenly I felt at home in an England shirt."

Although England were wretched during the rest of the series, enduring savage beatings by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, Armitage's star continued to be in the ascendant.

Even Graham Henry, the notoriously hard-to-impress All Blacks coach, conceded: "I was quite impressed with their full-back - he's got possibilities".

England fans voted Armitage their player of the series and the addition of his name to the elite squad earlier this month was a formality.

Now he is desperate for a first taste of the Six Nations and thinks England can surprise the doubters.

"All the players are really excited about what we're trying to do," he said. "We've got a clear understanding of our game plan and have worked on the problems of the autumn.

"The last 20 minutes in the matches weren't good enough, so we've improved our fitness. Defence is another massive area that needs to be fixed, because you don't concede 30 or 40 points at Twickenham. When we play Italy, we'll be ready."

Steffon Armitage
Odds on four Armitage brothers playing in the same England team: 66-1

And there's a possibility his brother Steffon will be there alongside him, after the 23-year-old flanker was drafted into England's squad following an injury to Lewis Moody.

They would be the first brothers to play for England since the Underwoods 14 years ago - and that might only be the start.

Bevon, 26, is the eldest of five Armitage brothers and a professional at First Division Doncaster. But it is the youngest two brothers that might turn out to be the best, according to their step-father.

Centre Guy, 15, is an England Under-18 trialist and the youngest, 13-year-old Joel, is a rampaging prop.

Graham Sharpe, spokesman for William Hill, quoted BBC Sport odds of 66-1 on Delon, Steffon, Guy and Joel playing together in the same England team in the future.

That would cap an amazing journey for the family, but for the moment Delon is focused solely on retaining his precious England jersey.

* Delon Armitage was speaking at an EDF Energy national schools rugby programme event

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see also
Armitage replaces injured Moody
26 Jan 09 |  English
Armitage tips brother for England
15 Jan 09 |  London Irish
England 6-32 New Zealand
29 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
England 6-42 South Africa
22 Nov 08 |  English
Armitage is flourishing - Booth
21 Nov 08 |  London Irish
England 14-28 Australia
15 Nov 08 |  English
England 39-13 Pacific Islanders
08 Nov 08 |  English


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