‘Wine-tasting is like my role in England’s scrum’
Andrew Sheridan, once Australia’s nemesis, is excelling in his new job, writes Daniel Schofield
Andrew Sheridan has quite the CV: a converted second row who became one of the most destructive props in world rugby, a bench-press personal best of 460lb, a Level 2 NVQ in bricklaying, a self-penned 16-track folk album and, most recently, a holder of a Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma.
Since it was established in 1969, only 9,000 people have reached the level-four stage with the WSET, but it is a fair bet that Sheridan is its first graduate to have singlehandedly demolished an Australian scrum on two occasions. Even now, the very mention of his name can send shudders down a few Wallabies’ spines.
As he settles down with a 2013 Chianti Rufina on a recent visit to London, Sheridan says his performances against Australia in 2005 and 2007 were fuelled by no sense of antipathy. “It was nothing personal,” Sheridan says. “I always really enjoyed being around Australians. They were an unbelievably competitive bunch in all sports. They want to win so badly, and that rubs off on you.”
It was 12 years ago, in his first England start, that Sheridan’s star was born. Just four seasons previously, he had been flitting between the second and back row without much success. Peter
Thorburn, his coach at Bristol, suggested he give the front row a try. “I was open to the idea,” Sheridan says. “I was an OK second row, but I was never going to progress as an international rugby player there. I think it was a case of either it worked or it was back to the drawing board.”
What marked Sheridan out was his strength. Tales of his prowess in the gym are legendary. With a deadlift personal best of 700lb, qualified judges thought he could have won an Olympic weightlifting medal had he switched sports.
The Wallabies did not know what had hit them. Al Baxter, the unfortunate tighthead that day, was eventually sin-binned after conceding a glut of penalties. That forced Matt Dunning to switch sides and the loosehead was duly carried off on a stretcher, forcing uncontested scrums for the final 10 minutes of the match.
“That was a new level of scrummaging to compete against today,” Eddie Jones, then the Australia coach, said afterwards. “Sheridan led the way, he put enormous pressure on the righthand side of our scrum.”
Even now, Sheridan is keen to deflect any praise. “A lot of it comes down to people around you, the hooker beside you, the tighthead and the second rows behind you,” Sheridan says. “The scrum is very much a collective. I was just lucky that I had Phil Vickery, Steve Thompson, Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock alongside me.”
Two years later, Sheridan again demolished the Australians up front in their World Cup quarterfinal encounter in Marseille, providing Jonny Wilkinson with the platform to kick England to an improbable 12-10 victory. There is a fantastic story which has done the rounds that, in the changing rooms before the match, Mark Regan, the garrulous hooker, overhead Sheridan listening to the Spice Girls on his ipod. Alarmed by this development, Regan takes the opportunity to slyly kick Sheridan in the head at an early ruck. With Regan blaming the opposition, a suitably enraged Sheridan duly eviscerates the Wallabies.
It is fantastic, but according to Sheridan himself total fiction. “The Spice Girls had a lot of success, I didn’t mind a couple of their songs, but I have no idea where that came from. Absolute nonsense.”
The even greater shame was that Sheridan was limited to just 40 caps for England as injuries took their toll. Sheridan had four operations on his shoulders before being forced to retire at 34 on medical advice in 2014.
“I went in to the sport with my eyes open,” Sheridan says. “I never thought that I would come out the other end unscathed. It is a tough old game. I enjoyed it in my youth, but having turned 38 I don’t really miss it that much. I don’t have a particular desire to smash my head into another scrum.”
Nevertheless, Sheridan has just started coaching in Toulon’s academy close to where he is based in France. “I am really looking forward to it. These are young lads who have got a lot of potential and hopefully I will be able to pass on some of my knowledge to them.”
The majority of his time is spent within the wine trade. Sheridan began his diploma while still playing. He tells a story of Graham Rowntree, the England scrum coach, walking into his room at Pennyhill Park to find Sheridan with two opened bottles of wine and a bottle of brandy on the go. The explanation that it was for coursework did not go down well.
To pass his level four, Sheridan took six exams, which involved being able to identify 250 wines, as well as 32 spirits. He says the arts of blind tasting and scrummaging have a lot in common.
“When you are presented with 60 wines, it is the ability to assess them under pressure and identify the flavours,” Sheridan says. “In rugby, you are also making those decisions under pressure, working out what the guy opposite you is doing and acting upon it quickly. Tasting is less physically demanding, but it has that same mental satisfaction of working it out like a puzzle.”
‘Having turned 38, I don’t miss it that much. I don’t have a desire to smash my head into a scrum’
Red-blooded: Andrew Sheridan in his day job and (top) taking on Matt Dunning, of Australia, during England’s victory at the 2007 World Cup