Guscott fired up by his freedom

Liberated by the changes to the game's laws, the England centre is playing better than ever at the age of 32. Chris Hewett, the Independent's new Rugby Union Correspondent, talked to him
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Legend has it that back in the early 1970s, two Welshmen were watching a village rugby match from a soggy touchline deep in the mist- shrouded valleys. "Who's the Flash Harry playing at outside half?" asked one. "Oh, that's God", replied his colleague. "Only he thinks he's Barry John."

If the Almighty were to renew his interest in the game today it is a reasonable bet that he would use Jeremy Guscott as his model. No player comes close to him in the celestial stakes; Jonah Lomu's physical gifts are undermined by a distinctly demonic reliance on brute force, Philippe Sella is showing his age and Will Carling spends far too much time wallowing around in the newspapers.

If your Saturday afternoons are spent in search of the sporting sublime, look no further than the Recreation Ground, Bath, when the man with the No 12 on his back puts one delicate foot on the accelerator - he would not dirty his hands with anything so vulgar as a turbocharger - and purrs away from half a dozen pairs of clutching hands.

By common consent Guscott, at 32, is playing the best rugby of his life - and Bath badly missed his calming presence when injury prevented him from playing at Pontypridd in Saturday's European Cup pool match. He has waited more than a decade for the rule-makers to remove the handcuffs from midfield backs and give them a yard of space in which to express themselves. Now that the conditions are favourable, he is making up for lost time.

"The rugby I'm playing for Bath right now is the rugby I've always played in mind," he said with the serene air of a man who has been everywhere and done everything once already, and is now looking forward to doing it all over again in the golden light of an Indian summer. "Given the right opportunity, my natural inclination is to run the ball, but it hasn't always been possible. Not everyone understands these things.

"I can remember David Campese saying two or three seasons ago that the laws as they stood then created so much traffic in midfield that the demise of back play was inevitable. If someone like Campo felt he had to say that, it shows how difficult things had become. Now it's changed again. Back rows have to stay down at the scrummage and, as a result, us centres don't see quite so much of 17-stone loose forwards as we did. Let's face it. If a player in my mould can't perform a bit given the space and freedom the present laws allow, he should pack it in."

Guscott laughs loud and long when it is suggested that he has never played better, but there is no element of mockery in his mirth. Indeed, he seems to have rediscovered the innocent enthusiasm he had for the game back in 1989, when he put four tries past a bewildered Romanian defence in Bucharest on his international debut and helped the British Lions turn an epic series against Australia with a score of glorious bravado in Brisbane. So besotted and unspoiled was he that, on his return to Bath, he paid a social visit to his old junior club on pre-season trial day and played the final 20-minute session in his trainers, just for the hell of it.

Halcyon days, yet he looks back on them with mixed feelings. "Don't get me wrong, '89 was a fantastic year. But, after it, I found myself being measured by my performances in particular games. I'd scored nine tries in seven internationals and suddenly I was known as "the try-scoring Jerry Guscott". People expected me to keep doing it and were disappointed when I failed. But, of course, the freedom I'd enjoyed on the pitch up to that point had disappeared. I was a marked man.

"It's taken a long time to feel that sense of freedom again but this season it's there. I don't think I was ever cheesed off with rugby, but I needed some stimulation and the way we played at Bath last year under quite restrictive laws really fired me up again. During the summer we sat down, assessed the new situation and looked at ways of taking things another step forward. You're seeing the results of that now."

If Guscott sounds at ease with himself, no-one should accuse him of going soft. For all his wide-ranging and very public sidelines - radio projects for the BBC, a spot of television here and there and some committed work on behalf of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme - he remains his own man. His occasionally prickly relationship with the press has mellowed, but he is impossible to shift on a point of principle, as Bath found last spring when their main attraction flatly refused to participate in the lucrative cross-code matches with Wigan.

"I stand by what I said on that subject at the time. I have the utmost respect for rugby league players - I'm playing alongside two of them most weeks - and I admire their high degree of skill and commitment. But what did I have to gain from those two games? Nothing, that's what. I had far more to lose. Many people found the matches entertaining and I had no problem with that - I watched both myself - but what did they prove in terms of rugby?"

One recent controversy did matter, though, namely Jack Rowell's decision to leave Guscott out of the early England squad sessions. Player and coach go back a long way and have been known to indulge in the odd psychological joust. Rowell dropped Guscott for a Cup semi-final in 1990 as a means of bringing the new Lion down a peg or two, a heresy no other selector has even contemplated over the last seven years. Was this another ruse to bring out the best from the best?

"Who knows why Jack goes about things the way he does? I wasn't put out about it at all, mainly because I'd been told not to worry. Jack and I had a chat and he said that because he knew everything there was to know about me and Will and Rory and a few others, he would take the chance to look at some different players. That was a bit odd, really. He also knew everything about Ben Clarke and Jason Leonard, yet they were still in the squad. But I knew that if I played up to scratch I'd be back soon enough, so I had a quiet giggle to myself and got down to work."

According to John Hall, a long-time playing colleague and now team manager at Bath, Guscott the dyed-in-the-wool individual is now a paragon of collective responsibility. A glance at the reigning champions' team sheet explains the transformation. He is the only Bathonian left in the side - Hall's retirement in the spring of 1995 left him high and dry on the home-grown front - and he feels more accountable to colleagues, supporters and the city he loves as a result. He has made it his business to keep the flame burning in the home dressing room, to maintain the competitive spirit originally forged by the "West Country Mafia" of the mid-1980s: Barnes and Hill, Chilcott and Dawe, Robinson and Hall himself.

Do the fires still rage in the same way? Guscott pauses and ponders for an unusually long time, "not because I think the old spirit has gone, but because I'm searching for the right words", he said.

And, finally, he begins to speak. "Yes, it's still there because there is continuity at Bath, even with the new faces coming in. John Hall was a player, then a captain and is now a manager. Phil de Glanville came straight from college and is still here as skipper. Kevin Yates and Neil McCarthy are colts products. Nigel Redman, Andy Robinson and myself have been here for a decade.

"Change is inevitable, but at Bath the change is slight because what makes this place special can never be allowed to diminish. Our wives, girlfriends and children still play their part in the social fabric of the club, as do the supporters. We all mingle after a game and to my mind, that atmosphere is what rugby is and should always be about. If we lose that, we lose everything."

Will England choose to lose Guscott this season, as many pundits predicted at the start of it? Not a chance. The prospect of a third Lions tour next summer is a powerful motivating factor and as Hall perceptively points out, his old ally would never allow himself to bow out on anything other than his own terms - that is to say, whilst still at the top of tree.

Guscott has no time for retirement talk, although he admits that the chronic and career-threatening groin condition that sidelined him for the entire 1993/94 season gave him a sharp intimation of his own sporting mortality.

"That injury prepared me for the inevitable, which is, of course, eventual retirement," he admits. "I now know what it is like to be without rugby and it doesn't worry me any more. The important thing now is to make the most of the time that is left to me and the way Bath are playing the game, it's impossible not to enjoy it.

"We are committed to an exciting brand of rugby, attacks of nine or 10 phases, creating space both for ourselves and everyone else - and, unlike in the old days, there's no way the opposition can mark us all."