Guscott still running for the love of it

RUGBY UNION: Bath's model centre treasures his freedom from contract as league kicks off in new era. Steve Bale reports; 'I would say honestly that the England three-quarter line has always been underused'
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If rugby union is on the threshold, Jeremy Guscott, you might imagine, ought already to be jumping across it as one of the game's most marketable products in this new age of market forces. An obvious professional ready to take a place in the new professionalism.

So much for imagination, because believe it or not the England centre has always made it apparent that he plays the game more for love than money; hence his persistent rejection of rugby league (apart from the fact that the offers were never good enough). Anyway, he was already doing perfectly well under the former, shamateur dispensation.

In one way, then, with open rugby now at the centre of rugby union's off-the-field legislation as well as being an on-the-field ideal, Guscott can simply shrug at the most momentous change in the game for a century. Playing for Bath when they open in the Courage Championship at West Hartlepool this afternoon will not be essentially different from when he made his comeback at the same venue after long-term injury last October.

He gives this assurance: "The announcement of professionalism isn't going to change my attitude towards playing rugby. The issue for me in being offered a business oportunity of any kind is how it would affect what I'm doing now, work, family, our future plans, my rugby and all my other business interests. It would have to take something extraordinary to make me change - and that's been the case from the earliest stage of my career."

In other words, Guscott, at 30 and in his prime, does not welcome the prospect of being a full-time rugby player in the way that, say, his Bath and England team-mate Mike Catt evidently has. Guscott has enough going on already for the principle of professional rugby to leave him unmoved even if he is not exactly averse to the prospect of being much more handsomely remunerated than before.

"There's no disputing the advantage full-time athletes have over part- timers and if this takes its full course international rugby isn't going to be as important as club rugby because it will eventually be the clubs who call the tune.

"The culture in rugby has been freedom and expression, because it's been the individual's choice to do what he wants when he wants. But once you are contracted you become the property of the club, all that freedom is taken away from you, and you are obligated."

Probably by then Guscott will be long retired. For now, he will carry on doing marketing work for British Gas (which appears to need all the help it can get in this area) and a well-established list of promotional activities, the newest of which is promoting his newly published autobiography*.

Here we are given his own version of himself, which has been a long time in coming even though feature writers as well as rugby writers have laboured down the years to explain the Guscott enigma (his word). The story of how the working-class teenage delinquent was straightened out by rugby and became one of the most thrilling players in the world elevates us beyond the middle-class stuffiness which is widely perceived to pervade the game in England.

It also allows Guscott to get his own back on those, pressmen and others, who he feels have wilfully misunderstood him during the half-dozen years since he scored a hat-trick of tries on his England debut in Romania. "It's true, as the book says, that I did play a bit of a game with the press," Guscott said.

"There are so many profiles done on sporting personalities, myself included, and through them perceptions build up which are mistaken or misleading. For instance, it's now firmly installed in people's minds that Jeremy Guscott is a male model. It's a preconceived idea they have of me.

"Some players - myself, Will Carling, Gavin Hastings - have moved a bit outside rugby to do more lifestyle-type interviews and, to be honest, they are more enjoyable to do. After all, there are only so many questions a rugby journalist can ask you about rugby and to make that exciting or interesting is difficult."

Ouch. At least the book allows Guscott to say what he wants about himself rather than what others would have him say. The male-modelling fixation, for example, is based on a handful of assignments which have taken up a minuscule proportion of his life. He would not, however, presume to judge himself.

"The book is self-explanatory in that it's about me and my life and what I've achieved, but it's for people to form their own opinions about what they read. I have to accept what people think of me and if, by reading the book, they feel they know me better as a person, if it confirms their ideas of totally blows away their formed opinions, then it will have done its job.

"There have been times when I haven't minded too much what people think, because only by my actions on the field and what I say can I change those opinions - and they are formed from interviews on the TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines. But nobody really knows me other than my closest friends and family - and those are the most important people in my life."

We are left with a continuing enigma, a feeling fuelled by his own - and everyone else's - frustration that this unalloyed talent should have been so neglected because of England's predominantly restricted rugby during their successful 1990s. Guscott would concede, just about, that forward grind was justifiable to do the 1991 Grand Slam but thereafter - no way.

"The winning is the most important aspect of playing sport at the highest level," he said. "But you also have to learn along the way. You have to progress, develop. It seems to me that throughout the rugby world the England three- quarter line is regarded as one of the best and I would say perfectly honestly that it has always been under-used."

The book speaks plainly of Guscott's preference for Bath's Stuart Barnes as his outside half over Rob Andrew, who for so long kept Barnes out of the England side and remains Guscott's international colleague.

"I would like to get more involved but Nos 9 and 10 are the playmakers and the decisions depend on them.

"Last season it was said publicly that we were going to play a 15-man game and against Romania and Canada that was so. But the more we went into the Five Nations' Championship so we went back into our old way of playing and we continued in the World Cup.

"England at the moment are in a half-way house. We are neither playing expansive nor 15-man rugby. We are caught in the middle and someone somewhere has to make a decision about where we go, and pick the players to implement it."

Guscott would not - perhaps dare not - say so, but by "someone somewhere" he can mean only one man: Jack Rowell, his old Bath patriarch and now his England manager.

* At The Centre (Pavilion, pounds 16.99) by Jeremy Guscott with Stephen Jones.

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