DUBAI // Austin Healey, the former England rugby international, will be on the dance floor next weekend instead of completing a hat-trick of appearances at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Healey, who won 51 caps for England, was the biggest name at the last two editions of the Sevens, but this year he is competing instead as one of the favourites to win Strictly Come Dancing, the popular UK television dance contest.
The 35-year-old utility back turned out twice for an all-star charity side, the Christina Noble Children's Foundation, in the international invitation competition, and was planning to play for their veterans' side this time around. Last year, he stated his intention to return to the Emirates for a third time, but said it "depends on whether the wife gives me a pass to come back". However, he has since opted to follow the lead of his friend and former England colleague, Matt Dawson, by competing in the hit BBC dance contest.
The Strictly Come Dancing final takes place at Christmas, and Healey is one of the main contenders. He has topped the judges' vote every week since the start of the series, and as the housewives' favourite he has also fared strongly in the decisive public votes. Healey's sequin-suited presence on the dance floor has made for an odd spectacle, with a variety of gnarled figures from the rugby world in the crowd cheering him on.
Martin Johnson, England's World Cup winning captain from 2003, was in the audience supporting his former Leicester Tigers colleague during the early rounds. Will Greenwood, another ex-England rugby star who turned out for Christina Noble's veterans' side last year, has been a regular supporter of his former housemate. He is also set to miss out on a return to Dubai for the Nov 27-29 competition as he will be at Twickenham commentating on England's Test match against New Zealand.
"Both of us are desperately disappointed," said Greenwood. "Austin told me to pass on his deep regret that he can't come back out. We are old mates, and when we played at the Sevens last year, we were treated as though we had met 500 old mates. Hopefully, although we will be another year older in 2009, we will be back." Greenwood is not surprised by Healey's success on the dance floor. "He is doing very well. He is a gobby little guy, but he is one of the most talented players of any sport - golf, water skiing, skiing, rugby - that I have ever met. It is absolutely no surprise to me that he has dominated the show. The housewives love the muscles, the banter, and the dancing actually reflects how good he is at what he is supposed to be doing."