Once dubbed the ‘bad boy’ of English rugby, Danny Care’s rise to prominence has been far from a fairy-tale, but the maverick scrum-half has discovered a true sense of patriotism and belonging under the tutelage of Stuart Lancaster.
At 27, Care has endured more ebbs and flows in his career than many, but the Harlequins and England star is revelling in a second shot on the international stage.
Care is riding the crest of a wave after featuring in all five Tests for England during the Six Nations, while the Yorkshireman remains at the heart of a spirited Harlequins revival.
Although Care’s route to international distinction has been unconventional at times, the presence of Lancaster has always offered hope and guidance.
England head coach Lancaster seized an unpolished, yet gifted, Sheffield Wednesday academy footballer and converted him to the 15-man code during his tenure as Leeds' director of rugby.
“I knew Stuart Lancaster from the age of about 14 when he signed me to the Leeds academy and I played under him for Leeds and then obviously moved down to Harlequins, but still kept very close contact with him,” Care recalls.
Lancaster’s revolution of English rugby has been well documented, with a desire to reconnect with the heritage of the sport at the forefront of his coaching philosophy.
An emphasis on education has inspired the England camp and developed a sense of national pride, says a patriotic Care.
“I was delighted for him when he got the top job, I think he’s shown how hard work can pay off,” he claims. “I think he has instilled some great ethics and morals in the team, he has got everyone in the country excited about English rugby.
“It is the best culture I’ve known since I’ve been involved over the last six years. It really does feel like the whole country is supporting you, you walk through the tunnel and see the tweets that have been sent in from the public.
“Stuart has taken it very much back to our heritage, we’ve learnt a lot about the players that have played before us, the players that have died in war and you realise how much it really means to everyone. We understand what we’re playing for and we’re looking to carry that on and continue to make people happy around the country.”
Pride in battle
England’s latest Six Nations campaign may have ended in heartache, narrowly losing out on the title to Ireland on points difference, but Care believes the team continued to improve.
“With the first loss in France that was such a tough one, an unlucky one, two bounces of the ball that killed us,” he said.
“But I thought we bounced back well from that to go to Scotland and 'nil' them on their home patch; going on to beat Ireland and Wales to secure the Triple Crown and then scoring 50 points in Italy, I don’t think many teams have done that recently.
“We can be really proud with how we did bounce back from that defeat and we got better every week, that’s the good thing about this squad, we learn our lessons very quickly.”
Care completed in excess of 300 passes during the championship – second only to Ireland’s Conor Murray – and scored tries against Ireland and Wales, as well as claiming two audacious drop-goals.
“I was just delighted to get to the first game and play well, and then play in all five games, but I know with the competition level, not just at scrum-half, it’s all about taking chances,” he explained.
“In every position for England there are three or four players that can come in and equally do a great job, when you get a chance you have to take it.
“I was really pleased to play all five games and I was happy with how I went but I have to keep that form going for Quins.”
Next on the agenda for England is a testing trip to New Zealand, where they face a three-Test series against the reigning world champions.
Care made his international bow against the All Blacks in 2008 and could earn a 50th international cap when Lancaster’s side travel to the southern hemisphere but, personal landmarks aside, the scrum-half believes the tour will prove an accurate marker for England with the World Cup just around the corner in 2015.
“We’re going there confident and really looking forward to the challenge, I think it will give us a really good indicator to where we’re at as a team,” he says.
“To take on the best team in the world in their own back yard, I made my debut there six years ago and have very fond memories of going there.
“Rugby is their life down there, it’s a part of their culture, everyone is watching the rugby and it’s an unbelievable place to go and play.
“We know we’re going to have to play incredibly well to get a result down there.”
However, before Care can turn his mind to international affairs, there is a domestic and European adventure to be completed.
Victory over Sale Sharks on Friday night, including a typically quick-witted try from Care, saw Harlequins usurp their hosts at the AJ Bell Stadium and move into fifth place as the fight for a top-four finish in the Premiership intensifies.
The London-based club sit just five points shy of a play-off berth and ahead of a crucial showdown against Leicester Tigers – who knocked Harlequins out in the Premiership semi-final term – Care admits there is an air of buoyancy at The Stoop.
“The mood is really good, that is something that will never die,” he said. “We are Quins, that is our self-belief and our confidence.
“We do believe we can beat anyone on their day. We’ve had a little bit of an up-and-down season this year but hopefully there is still something special to happen at the end of it.
“We’re working really hard to get better every week and if we keep winning games, who knows what will happen.”
With Bath – who visit The Stoop on the final day of the season – presently occupying fourth place, Harlequins can ill-afford any slips and Care insists the 2012 Premiership champions are already in “cup final” mode.
“At the moment you’d have to say we’re outsiders, we have a few places to catch up, but we’re under no illusions,” he added.
“Every game is a cup final for us, we’ve to win every game because it’s knockout rugby for us now. We can’t afford to lose any more games now, we’re ready to go and see what happens.”
Victory over Stade Francais in Paris set up a semi-final date with Premiership rivals Northampton and Care revealed there are no split priorities for Quins, who seek both Amlin Cup and Premiership glory.
“We’re out to win every game,” Care said. “We know now with the position we’re now in the Premiership, every game is a cup final for us, we have to win them all if we want to get in the top four.
“In 2011 when we won the Amlin Cup it was an unbelievable feeling to lift that trophy and, as a team, we want some silverware at the end of the season.
“Whether it’s Amlin or the Premiership we would be very happy, hopefully we keep winning games and building momentum as we are at the minute.”
IG, a global leader in online trading, as part of its ‘Brighter Together’ campaign with Harlequins will be offering fans the chance to win unbeatable experiences. Visit twitter.com/IGcom for your chance to win, or pick one of 15 lucky golden eggs at the Harlequins v Leicester Tigers game this Friday.