Danny Care: 'There's a perception that I'm an idiot'
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
This is Danny Care's life. Pass or kick. Run or release. Tap and go or hang on tight.
Frequently he gets those decisions right. Sometimes he doesn't. Always the scrum-half's brain is working: what now, what next, where to.
Last Saturday, Paris. England are 16-3 down and struggling. As Care digs the ball out of a messy ruck, they are awarded a penalty in front of the posts. And so it begins.
"You've got to react to how the game is going. I thought, we haven't been able to get much going, we haven't been able to hold on to much ball for a long time, we're a fair few points down. I thought we needed a bit of tempo, a bit of a lift. I saw a bit of a gap, and I thought, I've got go for that."
All those options and resolutions fizzed through Care's mind in under a second. Another two seconds on and he is a metre from the French try-line; two passes later, Mike Brown is touching down for a try. England have a grip on a match that was away and lost to them.
"There are times as a scrum-half when you have to make those decisions, when you have to live by the sword a little bit," says Care, watching the rain fall at England's training base as he prepares to take on Scotland at a Murrayfield that will be soggier still.
"It was one of those decisions where if it goes well we'll score a try; if we don't, if we mess up, it's down to me. I'm willing to take it on the chin if I get it wrong."
Scroll back through the 27-year-old's life and it has always been this way. Left or right. Safety or speculation.
Decision one, aged 10: football or rugby. "That was a big one for me. I chose football, and I went off to play for the Sheffield Wednesday academy. I played a little bit of rugby at school, but it was all football.
"And then aged 14 I wasn't getting played, and they were starting to pick on size not skill. When you're a kid, all you want to do is play, so I said to my dad, let's change this."
Stick or twist. Run or pass.
“With the trouble that I got in, it was self-inflicted. It was me wanting to go out and have a good time. I was just enjoying life. ”
"I broke myself out of the contract midway through the year. All my mates at school played for Otley. I had always told them I was a footballer, but now I thought, I'm giving rugby a crack.
"We went on a lads and dads tour to Ireland, just playing and having a few drinks with the dads afterwards, and I loved it. I never looked back."
Brought into the Leeds academy by Stuart Lancaster, the man who now coaches him for England, Care had his next choice to make: stick with his hometown club, or risk sinking in a bigger pond.
He gambled. Six months later, kicking nothing but heels as Harlequins third choice behind England scrum-half Andy Gomarsall and Samoa's Steve So'oialo, he was taking it on the chin.
"I was like, what have I done here? Me being as naïve as I was, I thought I was ready.
"Looking back now, I can see it was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I learned so much from watching Gomers and Steve play and train. Gomers was brilliant in helping me with my kicking and decision-making. And then when I got my chance, I was ready."
Care, in the words of his club half-back partner Nick Evans, "is a cheeky little bugger. He loves life and he enjoys it". His own mother will tell you about a kid who was always talking, always testing boundaries.
Those traits have at times worked against him, as much as they have made him the archetypal scrum-half.
In a three-month period two years ago Care was arrested on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly, fined by Quins, arrested and charged with drink driving, excluded from the England squad, banned from driving for 16 months, arrested again after a night out in Leeds and cautioned for being drunk and disorderly.
Frequently he gets the decisions right. Sometimes he doesn't.
"With the trouble that I got in, it was self-inflicted," admits Care. "It was me wanting to go out and have a good time. I was just enjoying life.
"Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a bad lad; I just get a bit carried away sometimes with the lads. But I made some bad decisions. I was rightly punished, and punished quite harshly, both on the pitch and off it.
"I had to take a good look at myself, talk to people close to me, and realise what I was throwing away. Being banned from playing for my country - that was heartbreaking. That made me realise that I had to sort my life out. And I'm very thankful for Quins and England for giving me the chance to prove that I'm not that lad that some people think I am.
"It's hard. I meet random people and they say, 'You're a lot nicer than I thought you were.' And then it hits you, that there is the perception of me still. That you're an idiot, when I just got a bit excited and made a few bad decisions."
Danny Care - life and times
- 1987: Born Leeds, 2 January
- 2002: Leaves Sheffield Wednesday academy and focuses on rugby, joining Otley
- 2003: Signs for Leeds Tykes
- 2006: England Sevens debut
- 2006: Joins Harlequins
- 2008: England debut v Barbarians
- 2008: First England cap v New Zealand
- 2011: Wins Six Nations with England; Amlin Challenge Cup with Harlequins
- 2012: Dropped for Six Nations; Wins Premiership with Quins; Recalled by England for summer tour
- England caps: 43 (20 starts, 23 off bench)
- Tries: 5, Drop-goals: 2
How has he changed? How has he ensured that, in the frantic second of option, choice and movement, he now takes the right path?
"What Danny needed was just to know he was backed," says Evans. "When you're going through tough times you're going to hear a lot of negativity. The senior guys at Quins backed Danny, and he knuckled down and did the hard work.
"Whenever he gets a challenge he steps up and shows his character. And he has done that over the last couple of years to get himself back into the position he is in now."
"What Danny brings is special," says Conor O'Shea, his club's director of rugby. "It is all very well seeing a gap, it is quite another thing to be able to take advantage of it. Too many people focus on the occasional blemish and fail to realise just what dynamism he can bring to a side.
"He's the catalyst, he's the kind of guy who will make something happen," says Evans, who believes his partner has improved both his defence and passing in the last year.
"He can control the forwards and do the parts of that need to be done - yelling at the forwards, getting into position, listening to his 10, but he also sets our tempo.
"He's not a half-back who will just go from ruck to ruck and pass. When you get to the big, tough games, you need a guy like that who can just open the defence up and create something out of nothing.
"He's a young kid still, and London is a great town, it's a fantastic place. I'm not going to get on the back of guys who go out as long as they turn up for training focused and ready to go. Danny turns up on a Monday and is ready to go whether he's been out and had some fun or not, that's not really the point anymore for him.
"Don't get me wrong. I've had a few words with him and given him a bollocking. But nine times out of 10, when he makes a decision now, he's making the right one."
Care has seldom looked settled in an England shirt. There have been rivals - Harry Ellis, Paul Hodgson, Ben Youngs, Lee Dickson. There have been injuries, from the mundane (the ankle injury which disrupted his preparations for these Six Nations) to the tragi-comic (slipping on ice and injuring ligaments before what would have been his tournament debut six years ago).
Now, under his old mentor Lancaster ("Ever since I was 15 he's been developing moves to get me running") he has a chance to prove himself a canny enough gambler to hold on to the nine shirt all the way through to next autumn's World Cup.
"It can be harder to take risks when you're in and out of the team," he admits. "But that's the way I never want to play. I never want to be the one who doesn't try things.
"I like to enjoy myself out there. I'll always try something." He grins. "And if it doesn't come off, I'll face the consequences afterwards."