Rugby Union: Bleak days over for Bracken the born-again red rose international

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It is more than four years since a cynical All Black flanker by the name of Jamie Joseph unwittingly made a sporting icon of Kyran Bracken with one sly stamp of his right boot.

Bracken slowly recovered from the physical effects of that assault but it has taken him until now to re-establish his credentials as the brightest England scrum-half of his generation who is making up for lost time.

Kyran Bracken was guaranteed his 15 minutes of fame within two minutes of the start of his England debut. As the Bristol law student spun out a trademark pass from the first line-out of the Twickenham international against New Zealand in November 1993, a snarling lump of south island nastiness picked his moment, selected his spot and, as soon as the referee turned his back, stamped hard on the newcomer's ankle, tearing the sinews and straining the ligaments to breaking point.

History records that Bracken not only played on - an unfeasible act in itself, given the severity of his injury - but summoned up one of the definitive scrum-half performances of recent memory, coaxing and cajoling a match-winning effort from a grizzled, seen-it and done-it pack to whom he had been introduced a mere 48 hours previously. Suddenly, the back pages were no longer at the races. Cuddly Kyran was super-sexy front-page material, a heart-throb hero with attitude.

So what happened? Why are we not now discussing a 30-cap England veteran, a Test Lion, a 24-carat celeb? It is a cautionary tale. A victim of his own bravery, Bracken took a series of gambles with his own fitness that would have made the quackiest of quack doctors blanch and as a result, he very nearly put the brightest of futures behind him. In short, he committed the deadliest rugby sin of them all. He played injured.

He played before his ankle was fully mended, he played with a serious back condition, he played with glandular fever, he played with groin trouble. Like Terry Holmes, the brilliant but ultimately unfulfilled Welsh scrum- half of the early 1980s, his courage frequently undermined his judgement. Only now, in the supremely professional environment of a resurgent Saracens, has he finally accepted the truism that discretion is the better part of valour.

"I think everyone plays with niggles from time to time," he points out. "Rugby is a hard old game and there aren't many Mondays when you can avoid the treatment table entirely and if you pulled out with every bump and bang, you'd never get on the pitch.

"But I've realised now that serious fitness problems need rest and treatment, not 80 minutes of physical purgatory. I was carrying a groin injury as recently as last season. It didn't stop me playing, but it definitely stopped me playing to the best of my ability. It's counter- productive. I know that now.

"When I had glandular fever, I lost a stone in weight and played terribly. But I was at Bristol then and they were struggling. They didn't put pressure on me to play - I want to emphasise that point - but I felt honour bound to turn out, to do my bit. I thought I'd get through, that it would be all right. It wasn't all right, though. It was bloody awful.

"Thankfully, the professional game doesn't wear that sort of nonsense. Preparation is so thorough now, so detailed, that even if you were desperate to play injured, you couldn't hope to pull the wool over everyone's eyes, to fool all of the doctors and physios all of the time. I love playing rugby and I adore the rough and tumble of it all, but you have to be sensible and keep the lid on your frustration."

That particular emotion has claimed more than its pound of flesh from Bracken. He travelled to the 1995 World Cup as England's Grand Slam scrum- half but, short of full fitness as usual, found himself marginalised by Dewi Morris and subsequently had to watch Matt Dawson, Andy Gomarsall and Austin Healey fill the national No 9 shirt with varying degrees of authority.

Then, last summer, he narrowly missed out on Lions selection and when he finally made it to South Africa as a replacement for Rob Howley, he played half a game before picking up yet another injury.

This season, though, he is back in his pomp and operating at an all-embracing level beyond the grasp of any of his rivals (his cover tackles are in the Healey class, he works his pack as expertly as Dawson, he senses a gap as instinctively as Gomarsall and his pass, the basic tool of his trade, is the most accomplished of the four). His move to Saracens 18 months ago appears to have been the making of him.

"Bath got in touch with me as soon as it became obvious that I was no longer happy at Bristol, but I needed a change from the West Country scene. I can't say I have any regrets. Bristol was an intense situation in the sense that I felt their expectations of me were very high. Expectations are high at Sarries too, but we have so many quality players in important positions that the atmosphere is more favourable.

"Working with Francois Pienaar has been a real eye-opener. He has the hardest, most purely competitive edge of any coach I've encountered; he wants us to play total rugby and he believes the only way of accomplishing that is to be the fittest side in the Premiership. You don't mess about with him on any account. When I first joined, I thought I'd live in central London and commute to training. It wasn't enough, not by a long chalk. Now I live very close to our Southgate ground and base my entire lifestyle around my rugby."

Not that Bracken is a rugby bore, far from it. Indeed, he fears for the teenagers who put college and university on the back-burner to try their luck with a professional club. "What will they have to fall back on if they fail to make it? Where does rugby leave a 23-year-old who has never done anything but chuck a ball around?" he asks.

"I soaked up a massive amount of experience during my time at Bristol University, where I played all sorts of rugby, fairly anonymous stuff with my mates as well as high-profile matches, and if all this ended tomorrow, I'd be able to go back to the law and pick up where I left off. Perhaps professionalism has made it more difficult for youngsters to enjoy a bit of variety in their lives. That saddens me, frankly."

Bracken will need to draw on a good deal of life experience just to survive the hostility certain to be generated by an 80,000-strong Parisian crowd this afternoon. "It's always fun, playing the French," he says. "The fact that you can't understand a word they're saying adds something to the frenzy of it all."

The French will understand Bracken, that's for sure. One look at the expression on his face will tell them just how much he is enjoying life as a born-again international.