by PREETI VIRDEE
BENJAMIN JAMES FODEN was the youngest-born of three girls followed by two boys in Chester 26 years ago, to a “rugby nut” called Rob and Mum Jenny, who to this day prefers to watch recordings of her boys play after the match has finished in the comfort of her own home, sure in the knowledge that they are OK. Dad, Rob was to become the most significant influence on this young man’s life, coaching him to national sporting glory, making him proud to bear the England Rose on his chest across the globe in the highest echelons of rugby. And it appears Mr Foden Snr did a thoroughly decent job, with the only serious trouble Foden Jnr has got himself into - or to be more accurate, has got his fiancée into recently - is to get her pregnant.
And Ben is not the only celebrity in the family; “the girlfriend” is none other than the sexy siren, Una Healy from successful girl pop band, The Saturdays, who can be easily differentiated from her pop industry peers in that she is actually talented and can really sing. And not just that; being from Ireland, Una likes her rugby and is an avid Munster fan. She is by no means just a pretty face!
So back to Ben, and he has come a long way since his first year at Crewe & Nantwich Rugby Club when Dad dragged him along with big brother Tom (who plays fullback for RFU Championship side, Rotherham Titans). But all the four and five year olds wanted to do was play football with their four and five year friends, not rugby against huge eight and nine year old monsters, so finally Dad gave up and left them to it. Until the boys were eight and nine themselves, then playing for the under 9s, little Ben Foden fell in love with rugby, and it has never left him, to the point where even the best man at his wedding in June is Stuart Coackley, a teammate from the U9s, alongside his brother Tom.
Two weeks in Army Officer training at the age of fourteen convinced Foden that a career in the armed forces was never going to be a option, and professional rugby seemed like a very good idea. His ambition was fuelled by keenly following former Australian captain, Georgie Gregan, and Kiwis Justin Marshall and Jonah Lomu, though his biggest inspiration was All Black fullback Christian Cullen. He has fond memories of watching Lomu and Cullen tearing up the pitch when the two played together for the Wellington Hurricanes.
Ben followed a traditional route to the England Elite squad, identified early by selectors and representing his country at U16, U19, England Counties, and he was part of the U21 Grand Slam winning side in 2006. Two seasons with the England 7s team led to his inclusion in the 2008 England Saxons side that won the Churchill Cup, and the step up to the Elite squad was a natural progression in 2009 when coach Martin Johnson brought him into the fold, making his debut against Italy off the bench in the Six Nations.
In the meantime, playing at scrum half at club level, Sale Sharks snapped up this future talent in 2004. Coach Philippe Saint-André commented "If he's not a full-back I will eat my French beret.” Whilst there, the team won the European Challenge Cup, the Guinness Premiership, and were finalists in the Heineken Cup.
After four seasons in the north west, Ben joined Northampton Saints expecting to play at his favoured position of scrum half, but he had a losing battle on his hands when a certain Lee Dickson was rather handy in the same spot, and eventually he had to be content with his full back position. This frankly has worked out rather perfectly for England in 2012 with the Saints boys dominating the field with club captain Dylan Hartley as hooker, Dowson at No.8, Dickson at scrum half, Ashton on the wing and Foden at fullback.
Legendary world cup winning captain yet controversial coach, Johnno’s time has come and gone, and 50% of his first choice England team did not survive the culling with the transition to a ‘new England’ under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster. Foden, with 22 caps and a world cup under his belt already, had done more than enough to cement his position in the national squad going forward.
The new regime has brought with it a refreshing air of openness, and Ben commented on the new albeit interim head coach for now,
“I think he’s approached the whole thing in a very open minded way. He’s taken a lot from what players have said to him and looked at the regime from beforehand - plus sides and faults - then put together this structure on his view of how he wants things to be run and he’s been pretty successful so far.
“He gave all these young guys a shot, knew what he was doing in selection terms. I feel old with Owen (Farrell) and Courtney (Lawes) and people like that!
“It’s very different to previous regimes and hopefully it will carry on being successful.”
Foden agrees that though Johnno brought many things to the table including undeniable leadership skills as well as Grand Slam and World Cup wins, coaching experience was not one of them, and he had to rely on his support staff. Lancaster’s 20 years coaching experience has given him “an opportunity to blood young players and to make a massive turnaround. He cleaned the slate and has given these young guys the chance to come out and put their hand up for selection.
“Politics have gone out of the window; it’s good for the game, good for the young guys getting a shot and hopefully you’ll see some hungry guys out there who want to be stuck in an England shirt for at least 4 years.”
Having got a feel for Ben Foden on the pitch, we delved a little deeper into what makes the man. “Pops” or “Pop Idol” as he is often called, is a nickname he acquired from missing the first day of pre-season training at Sale to audition for Pop Idol when he was a spritely 18 year old. Mystery surrounds what actually happened as some claim he got through the first round of the auditions for the show, yet Dad Rob says he never made it. Obviously Fodes’ not-so-hidden talent is singing, so we found a clip† of “Benuna” - Ben proving he can croon beautifully alongside fiancée, Una.
But his talents do not stop there, since despite losing the O2 pie-making contest last summer at Pennyhill as judged by MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace, Ben is a dab-hand in the kitchen. As he reminded me, “that was Ashy’s fault and he ruined it, but it was quite a good pie.” Err…no, it was not, and I say that from experience as Gregg asked me to try all of them on that fateful evening where between them, Chris Ashton, James Haskell and Mr Foden tried to poison all the assembled press with copious amounts of sodium chloride!
Ben’s guilty pleasure, alongside sweets and chocolate, is "rubbish pop music and cheesy chart stuff", which could account for the popstar girlfriend. However, it was not exactly a conventional match made in heaven; his agent knew her agent, and between them, they decided that Mr Foden and Miss Healy would be rather well suited and should meet, so plans were hatched and the two were set up. That was in 2008, and the rest, as they say, is history. There’s a baby girl due in March to coincide with the end of the Six Nations, which in itself will be a tense time seeing that England play Ireland on Paddy’s Day at Twickenham! And after that, Miss Healy must have some super secret get fit plan, as they tie the knot in a celebrity wedding in June over in Ireland, but unsurprisingly, it’s the lovely lady that’s doing all the planning; Ben will just be turning up. No doubt he’d only get in the way otherwise, especially since she is the super-organised type, and he is just all over the place, driving her nuts daily by not even making the bed. Well, he is a boy after all(!)
Una has at least managed to drag him out of the dark ages and turned him just a little metrosexual, making sure he has a good skincare regime to counteract that weather-beaten skin all rugby players acquire. Gentlemen, take note, we know he’s a back, but it really is OK to moisturise!
So when Ben is not playing rugby, unlike many of the younger professional rugby boys, he is not obsessed with a PS3 or Wii. In the run up to the big arrival, every free moment has been taken up with finishing off that nursery. Consequently, his favourite pastime is sleeping, and he is trying very hard to get as much of it as he can, knowing there is little of that luxury in the future with a little one on the way. No doubt the lucky girl will be well versed in JK Rowling from a very young age since Dad’s favourite books are the Harry Potters, so many an hour will be whiled away in the completed nursery listening to Dad’s sultry tones as he narrates the tales from Hogwarts. And this fits perfectly with Fodes’ ambition to be a thespian had he not become a sportsman; his Grandma was a RADA graduate after all.
Returning to this reality, and winning his 24th cap on 11th February was not the best day in Fodes career so far. As Rome was blanketed in snow for the first time in 27 years, and the Azzurri were facing England for the first time at the Stadio Olimpico during the RBS Six Nations, England had a narrow 6-0 lead with just 3 minutes of the first half to go. But through a couple on nasty twists of fate, Foden was at the centre of Italy scoring two tries before the half time whistle was blown. First the ball ricocheted off Foden’s chest eventually falling into the hands of Giovanbattista Venditti to score, and just a moment later Foden’s pass was intercepted by Tommaso Benvenuti who ran in a second try under the posts. England’s account was suddenly in deficit 12-6.
He now laughs at what happened in an incredulous fashion, but is by no means easy on himself. Having watched the game back almost immediately after the game with a clock to gauge real time, Ben realised had he simply kicked the ball out rather than passed it, England would have gone into the break a point up.
“The ball is shaped in a peculiar way for a reason…so there are odd bounces that catch players out. The second one (try) was purely my fault. You have to take responsibility for yourself.”
And this young man is bright enough to know if he does not continue to take risks, England will not move forward.
Simon Cowell’s loss [whether rugby’s “pop idol” actually made the audition or not) is England and Northampton’s gain.
With their baby girl arriving imminently to join the “Benuna” family of Foden, Healy and Jackson (the puppy), a wedding on the horizon in the summer which will be possibly not quite as high brow as that of former teammate, Mike Tindall last year –Her Majesty is not expected to attend– but will no doubt be full of showbiz glamour. The future appears to be very bright for this young man.
FIRST THING THAT COMES TO MIND…
School: Good times
Name: Benjamin James Foden