Rugby Union: Callard prepared for the end - but not as a loser

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The Independent Online
This afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final between Bath and Pau may be a watershed for the fading glitterati of English rugby, but for Jon Callard, it is a match to be savoured. Chris Hewett hears the inspirational master marksman admit that there may not be many more grand knock-out occasions left for him.

It had just turned seven on the Reading services clock and for the uniformed adolescents behind the Burger King counter, a quiet Sunday evening had suddenly transformed itself into something resembling rush- hour on the Piccadilly line. Stretching into the distance was an apparently endless queue of finely tuned, highly paid and thoroughly miserable rugby players from Bath, all waiting for their double whoppers with cheese. "We've already been whopped once today, so we thought we'd eat something appropriate," muttered Mark Regan, the England hooker.

There was not a smile to be seen, no rugger-bugger banter to be heard. Regan and his clubmates had just been beaten, slaughtered actually, by Saracens at Vicarage Road and the previously unimaginable pain of a first ever 50-point league defeat was etched on to the features of every man jack of them. Some of the squad had been scheduled to attend the Sports Personality of the Year bash in London; others were planning a seasonal pint and a gossipy chinwag with the opposition. In the event, no one felt much like doing anything except hitting the sack, so they crept from dressing-room to team bus under cover of darkness and headed for home.

Come Wednesday, the black mood had lightened a little; the blame had been mutually apportioned, the brickbats thrown, the training-field beastings inflicted and endured. As the players turned their thoughts to today's Heineken Cup semi-final with Pau - the biggest, most prestigious home game in Bath's trophy-laden history - Jonathan Edward Brooks Callard sensed it was the right moment to deliver a timely exhortation, a passionate call to arms.

"Every time we lose we get it from the press and public, don't we? The obituaries are written, telling us that the bubble has burst, that the plug has been pulled. Well, we've been here before and pulled through and we'll do it again.

"Agreed, last Sunday was bloody awful - I've been playing here longer than most and I've never experienced a defeat like it - but the mark of this club is that we don't look outwards for excuses, but inwards for reasons. It's precisely what the last 48 hours have been about and we know what we have to do to make things right against Pau."

Callard, who will turn 32 on New Year's Day, has been of inestimable value to Bath since joining from Newport at the turn of the decade. He remains one of the two or three most dependable goal-kickers in British rugby and his marksmanship has decided more games than he would care to remember. Yet his closest colleagues are quick to point out that a competitive streak bordering on the psychotic has been every bit as influential as the sweet, rhythmic swing of his right leg. Mr Stroppy does not need lessons from anyone in the art of personal and collective motivation.

A bantamweight prepared to mix it with the super-heavies, Callard continues to derive huge enjoyment from the visceral excitement of top-level rugby. But the fun is fast coming to an end and he knows it. Bath have two other front-line full-backs on their books - Matt Perry, the England incumbent, and Iain Balshaw, perhaps the sharpest attacking talent to pitch up at the Recreation Ground since Jeremy Guscott first swaggered through the riverside gates in the early 1980s - and for all his venerable expertise, the old man of the trio can see the writing on the wall.

"I'd love to play for ever, of course, but I have to be realistic. I'm not going to stand in the way of anyone's international future and in Matt Perry we have an exceptionally talented footballer who we have a duty to utilise to his and our best advantage. Who knows? After this game, we may consider Matt as a specialist full-back and select accordingly. I'm not writing myself off completely but we have a pool of talent at our disposal here.

"As a member of the coaching team as well as the playing squad [Callard agreed a revised contract in the autumn in the wake of Clive Woodward's ascent to bigger and better things] I have to take the holistic view. If the side is better able to win the Heineken Cup without my services, if we can add an extra dimension by playing Matt or Iain at full-back, I'll go with the flow. There is no other approach. I don't want any `Oh, it would be nice to give JC a game' nonsense. Balls to that."

Callard's backroom partnership with Andy Robinson is still in its infancy and many Bath supporters admit to a feeling of unease at seeing two intensely ambitious but relatively inexperienced coaches as keepers of a precious flame ignited by Jack Rowell and lovingly shielded from the chill winds of the outside world by Brian Ashton. Certainly, Callard is seeing a different side to rugby now. "The pressure," he concedes, "is huge. I like pressure, but the responsibility of satisfying a pretty demanding public is something else."

Had it not been for the depth of his contribution to Recreation Ground life, Callard might have cut his coaching and managerial teeth in a more forgiving environment. Worcester, a non-Premiership club with grandiose plans to go with a grandiose bank account, wanted him as head cook and bottlewasher and put together a seductive package of rewards and opportunities. The deal fell through because Bath, acutely aware of what they might be losing, asked the earth for his services.

"Yes, I wanted to go. I'd been thinking about my rugby future after retirement, decided that I wanted to learn all there was to know about management and the rest of it and when the Worcester thing came up, I found they were offering me pretty much everything I was interested in.

"My position here is slightly different to the one I would have filled up there, but it's taking me a long way in the right direction and because of the way we're all exposed by the level of competition, I'm probably learning more quickly than most people in my situation.

"The thing about Bath, however, is that no one feels alone. Look at the senior players we have here; when we're up against the wall, the Guscotts, De Glanvilles and Catts all contribute, all bring something to the party. What is more, we all react the same way to a bad defeat. What happened at Saracens left a scar that will take a long time to erase, but at least we have a monumental game in front of us to help the healing process. For all sorts of reasons, we simply have to beat Pau."