In search of the lost chord

while the model player labelled the most gifted centre of his generation pleads for patience as his country play for time; Simon O'Hagan talks to Jeremy Guscott about the trials of his tryless times
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The Independent Online
THE TWO Jeremys shook hands and smiled into the camera last week - an improbable meeting in the Crush Bar of the Royal Opera House, in London. Jeremy Guscott was there to promote a series on opera he is presenting for BBC children's television, and Jeremy Isaacs, general director of the ROH, was there to offer his support for the project.

What on earth does Guscott know about opera? Not a great deal, he would readily accept. But a question of more relevance to the England rugby team might be: will Guscott be on song in the Five Nations' Championship? England begin their campaign against France in Paris on Saturday, and, not for the first time, Guscott's contribution is, as it were, an aria of concern.

It is more than six years since the most gifted centre of his generation announced his arrival on the international scene with a hat-trick of tries for England against Romania. In that time he has discovered what it must have been like for David Gower when his detractors started making themselves heard. Sportsmen as naturally gifted as Guscott or Gower always seem to get people's backs up. They see all this talent and cannot understand why it does not yield more in terms of quantifiable achievement. Then the suspicion arises that they are not really trying.

"What can I say?" Guscott said. "I am who I am. People have to accept the rough with the smooth. I really don't go out to answer anybody. I get most enjoyment from winning and playing well, and that's all I endeavour to do. 'Guscott should have scored more tries' is one of those topics that's always cropping up. Well I wish they'd told me earlier how I could have scored more because it certainly would have helped. One thing I can say is it's not through lack of effort that I am unsuccessful sometimes."

Not even Guscott would deny, though, that since missing the whole of the 1994 Five Nations' championship with a groin injury, his return to the England side has fallen short of what he would have liked. Up to the time of the injury he had scored 16 tries in 28 appearances. In 13 subsequent internationals he has scored just one, against France in last year's Five Nations. That was nine matches ago, the longest try-less run of his international career, and his failure to cross the line during last summer's World Cup or in either of this season's two England matches, against South Africa and Western Samoa, inevitably raises the question of whether the 30-year- old Guscott, now very much one of England's old guard, may be running out of time.

Guscott does not like talking about the World Cup. "It's history. I've left it behind. We got to the semi-final and that was it. We were beaten by a better side on the day. I don't have to look back on it. Maybe if we'd won I would do. But after the World Cup the players all had a big meeting and we set ourselves a few goals and that's what we're aiming to achieve."

The inadequacy of England's conservative methods having been shown up by more expansive opponents from the southern hemisphere, the idea this season was to try to develop the sort of running game that would play to the strengths of a man like Guscott. But with little progress being made so far, and Jack Rowell, the England manager, still erring on the side of caution - "you've got to get the basics right before you can do the flowery stuff" - the prospect of Guscott gliding back to try-scoring glory remains muted.

In his autobiography published at the start of the season, Guscott voiced his criticisms of the way England's emphasis on forward play, and Rob Andrew's propensity for kicking, had stifled his opportunities. Andrew, of course, has since gone, but while Guscott says he is enjoying his sport now more than ever that seems to apply less to England than to the rugby he plays for Bath.

"With Bath we've expanded our game plan," Guscott said. "We've set goals to keep the ball in play longer. We really don't know what's going to happen when we go out there, and I find that very exciting. The ball goes through more sets of hands, and therefore I'm involved more.

"I don't think England want to play like Bath. Jack [Rowell] has his ideas, and we're trying to transfer what we do in training into matches. We're trying to change the style a little bit, but we've got a lot of new personnel and things won't happen overnight. People have got to give us time."

Guscott knows that time is a commodity other players have more of than he does. As a result, he said, professionalism made little difference to him. "It affects the younger players more. I'm not going to change the way I go about things now." He still has his marketing job with British Gas, and a burgeoning career in television is too important in the long term to abandon in favour of devoting himself full-time to a sport in which his days are numbered.

Hence Guscott's appearance at the Royal Opera House for the launch of Top Score, which will start in early February. Attempting to sell opera to children by dressing itself up as a sports programme, the makers approached Guscott to be the presenter precisely because of his lack of expertise in the subject.

Guscott dutifully fielded questions about his first visit to the opera, to see Tosca last autumn. Finally, one of the ROH tenors turned up. "I've got one question for you," he said. "Are you going to get the ball this season?" No one needed the joke explaining to them.