PREPARING to win a 50th cap he admits once looked unlikely to ever materialise, remodelled England star Danny Care has spoken of his “pride” at now having legendary Springboks scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen amongst his fans.
Care, 27, will reach the landmark figure when South Africa arrive at Twickenham this afternoon.
Of course, the gifted Yorkshireman almost saw his international career disappear after a series of alcohol-related incidents led to him being dropped for the 2012 Six Nations.
The misdemeanours required him to regain the trust once more of England coach Stuart Lancaster – also his mentor when coming through the Leeds Tykes Academy – but he is now firmly established as the Red Rose No 9.
Earlier this week, the England squad was visited by van der Westhuizen, one of the sport’s greatest exponents of scrum-half play who now, unfortunately, at the age of just 43, is confined to a wheelchair due to the debilitating effects of the vicious, terminal motor neurone disease.
For Care, meeting the 1995 World Cup winner was an “unbelievable experience” as he explained: “I was a massive fan of his and watching him as a young scrum-half I loved the way he played – the physical nature of his game, how he got stuck in and really went for it.
“He was a typical South African in that way and to see him and see the impact of the disease he’s got was very humbling.
“Joost is still completely there mentally, and still wants to chat to you. He said he was a fan of my game which was something that made me very proud. To have a legend speak highly of my game was amazing. He said he’s looking forward to the match – but he’s a bit worried!”
Understandably so. South Africa arrive having suffered a shock loss to Ireland and with England believing they can end an 11-game winless run against them stretching back to 2006.
Another less likely visitor to England training this week was legendary Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson.
As inspirational as he was, did the American actually know anything about rugby?
“It was funny,” smiled Care. “Andy Farrell did a big presentation leading up to him, and he showed us Johnson running the world record time for 200 metres, and then a comparison with Jonny May.
“He said Jonny thinks he’s the fastest in our team, and how could he cut his time down?
“Johnson said something about relaxing his jaw because he’s too tense when he runs.
“That was pretty cool and I think for Jonny afterwards he was pretty excited, saying ‘MJ has just critiqued my running style!’
“It was a bit surreal. He’s one of the all-time greats and an absolute champion in everything he’s done.
“It was amazing to meet him and to chat to him about the different sports.
“You could get some comparisons between the two, and what it takes to be the best.
“If we can take a little bit out of his mantra then hopefully it will put us in a good way.”
May’s brilliant solo try was a highlight of England’s 24-21 defeat to the All Blacks a week ago but there has to be more consistency today.
Harlequins player Care said: “We need an extra 10 per cent from everyone – maybe 20 – but we know we can push on.
“I thought first half we were outstanding. The rugby we played, the tempo we played, the energy we had, was brilliant.
“But the All Blacks turned it up a level in the second half and showed why they are the best team in the world at the moment.
“That’s where we’re aspiring to be, and this week gives us a chance to go out there again and put our game on the park, and hopefully have a full 80-minute performance.”
And what of that milestone?
He said: “It did look like I might not get there. A few times.
“I needed a bit of a kick up the backside a couple of years ago and I got it in the hardest way possible. But it was probably the best way for me to fully realise what it means to play for England and how many people we’re representing.“I’ll be immensely proud on Saturday, I’d love to get a 100 caps if I could. As long as they want me, I’ll keep playing.”
And he admits still fearing the wrath of Lancaster, just as much as he did as a mischievous teenager at Headingley.
“I still hide from Stuart - if I see him walking down a corridor I usually run the other way!” joked Care.
“When he rings me and asks for a meeting, my first question is still “Oh no, am I in trouble?”
“But before I can say that now he tells me I’m not in trouble and he just wants to meet and chat about the game.
“He’s a tough bloke, a tough northern guy, and you don’t want to mess with him.
“But he’s an immensely proud person and all he wants is for us to fulfil our potential.”