Interview: Mike Tindall

England’s centre on marriage to a royal, suffering for his sport – and the nation’s chances of winning the Rugby World Cup

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Mid-morning at Gloucester Rugby Club and the place is awash with players; they jog across the sun-dappled pitches and sip protein shakes in the stands. It’s a picture of serenity and tranquillity. Then there’s a bang so loud it sounds as if a gun has gone off, the door flies open with such force that it rocks on its hinges, and Mike Tindall’s imposing frame appears. He looks at the door accusingly and wanders outside like a cowboy leaving a saloon bar.

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The man couldn’t look more like a rugby player if he tried, with his battered nose lying almost flat against his left cheek, those crooked teeth and craggy features – he was made to play the game. But there’s something else… in his large hand he carries a small flowery bag and a pink envelope. “For the missus,” he explains with a shrug. “Gotta keep the missus sweet.”

The scene is a perfect illustration of the two sides to Tindall. On the one hand there’s the smash-bash-crash rugby player who suffers injury after injury because of his tough and relentless approach to the game.

The man who goes into the World Cup as one of England’s most experienced and influential players has endured dozens of serious injuries in rugby (during a Six Nations match against Wales in 2008 he suffered a bruised liver, punctured his lung, lost a lot of blood and spent several days in intensive care).

The off-field Tindall, on the other hand, is laid-back, cool and calm, and the newest member of the royal family after marrying Zara Phillips, the Queen’s granddaughter, in July.

“He’s so relaxed he’s horizontal when he’s off the pitch,” says former England captain Phil Vickery. “He’s a really nice guy. On the pitch it’s a very different story; he’s massive, unstoppable. Nothing, and no one, gets past him.”

But away from the fray, those who know him well say he never gets angry or impatient, and that he hasn’t changed one bit since he met and married the 13th in line to the throne.

Even his legendary drinking skills haven’t been tempered. The man who spent the flight back from Australia after the 2003 World Cup attempting to break the record for drinking cans of beer on the flight (my sources reveal that he just missed the 52-tin record set by Australian cricketer David Boon in 1989) continues to enjoy a drink.

Indeed, on his stag do in Miami he was pictured drinking beer in a pool and downing a carafe of wine. Although he is keen to set the record straight about his wedding night, when some suggested he had been celebrating so hard he hadn’t been to bed – apparently a mix-up with his luggage meant he had to wear his wedding suit the morning after the night before.

His drinking hasn’t always been regarded so lightly. In 2008 he was charged with drink driving after being stopped the morning after a binge at the Cheltenham Festival. He was subsequently banned from driving for three years. It followed another conviction, in 2000, that had led to a 16-month disqualification.

But it is the tough, focused Tindall who will be on show over the next six weeks, as he takes a central role for England in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The man nicknamed “the Fridge’ for his 6ft 1in, 16-stone frame will undoubtedly captain England at times during the tournament. And he will also become England’s most capped centre when he next plays – overtaking Will Carling’s long-held 72 cap record.

“Those things don’t concern me too much,” he says with a shrug. “I just want to play for England and win for England. Being asked to captain is flattering, but I’m happy just playing the game. Adding up the caps and talking about my career is for other people. I just want to get out there and make it happen.”

His first chance to “make it happen” will be on Saturday, when England play their first game of the tournament, against Argentina, the side likely to be scrapping with Scotland for the runners-up spot in the group (England are the best side, on paper at least). It’s vital for England to top their group in order to get the best draw in the quarter-finals.

Though they should beat Argentina, are England good enough against the Tri-Nations teams, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa? While England beat Ireland in their pre-World Cup warm-up, just a few hours before on the other side of the world Australia were beating New Zealand in a huge, high-intensity, powerful game that was on a different level to that being played by the home nations. Most bets are on the antipodean sides to come away with the spoils.

“It’ll be tough and everyone’s talking about how good New Zealand are, and how they’re the clear favourites, but of course we can win,” says Tindall. “Whenever I put the shirt on I’m sure we can win or I wouldn’t bother going out there.”

The truth is that it will be difficult for England to win this World Cup, but there’s lots of experience in the side – Jonny Wilkinson and Tindall played in the 2003 World Cup-winning side, and Martin Johnson, the manager, captained it. “A World Cup victory can seem huge for younger players, but when they play with someone who’s done it, they realise it can’t be impossible. It brings the whole thing to life for the team.”

It was eight years ago, when England won that World Cup in Australia, that Tindall met Zara Phillips for the first time. They were introduced by England players Martin Cory and Austin Healey, who had taken Tindall out for a beer after he’d been dropped from the England team prior to the semi-final against France. The two hit it off immediately and became friends.

“I do believe in fate when I think about it,” says Tindall. “If I hadn’t been dropped, I wouldn’t have met Zara.” The couple texted for a while, then Phillips asked Tindall to the North Cotswold Ball. They went as friends, but by early 2004, they were an item.

When they first began dating, there was concern that their backgrounds – he’s from Yorkshire, the son of a social worker and a finance officer – were too different and that the relationship would founder, but Tindall says this has never been a problem.

“I’ve been on the edge of her world all the time I’ve been playing rugby. I know William and Harry because they are great England supporters, and I’ve played against Peter [Zara’s brother]. Zara’s mum [Princess Anne] is Patron of the Scottish Rugby Union, so I’ve known her for years.”

Have other players treated him differently since he’s been with Zara? “Not at all,” he says. “I don’t behave differently – I’m exactly the same. Zara comes along to watch with the other wives and girlfriends. People have got used to it.”

Is it true that Princess Anne asked him to get his nose fixed so it would look better in the wedding photos? “Yeah, but it was a light-hearted, jokey comment. It wasn’t a big deal, and look at my nose – can you blame her?”

He didn’t actually have any cosmetic treatment and says that fixing his nose would have been a huge mistake at that stage considering he was planning to get back out on the rugby field straight after the nuptials.

Indeed, so quick was his return to rugby after his wedding that he had no time for a honeymoon. “That’s the way it is in sport,” he says. “We’ll have plenty of time for honeymoons when we’re both retired.”

This will probably be his last World Cup. Aged 32, and given the battering his body has received, it seems unlikely that he’ll be playing in four years’ time, so what does he want from this tournament?

“I want England to win. That’s what I want every time we play. It’s what we all want, and it’s not beyond us. If we play well in the group stage, the rest is knock-out and we have the players to win in that environment.

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“It would be a great boost to the country if we could win it. I remember when we came back after winning in Sydney and that was amazing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that again…”