Ruby Union: Old soldiers take up arms for a battle of the backs

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The Independent Online
IN RUGBY, words such as old, veteran and evergreen are dangerous. If, for instance, Tony Swift is 'old' at the age of 33 and, for heaven's sake, Fran Clough at 30, where does that leave the rest of us? Even if these thirtysomething Lancastrians really are old soldiers, they absolutely refuse to fade away.

It is many a long year - nearly nine in Swift's case, nearly six in Clough's - since they represented England but both are playing as well as they ever have: Clough the rallying point of the Wasps back division and Swift the most prolific runner-in of tries since Alan Morley of Bristol (and occasionally England) was in his pomp.

To make the point, Andy Robinson, the captain of Bath, says of Swift: 'He is a remarkable player. His performances for Bath have been superb over the years and when he eventually retires he will be desperately difficult to replace.' And Rob Smith, the coach of Wasps, says of Clough: 'I'm reluctant to use words like vital but he is a very good footballer and has been an important cog in the team, a hard core in our back line, over a number of years.'

Whether or not either any longer has any England pretensions, their motivation these days perforce rests mainly on club rugby, on the massive confrontations that have been brought about by the establishment and rapid development of the Courage Clubs' Championship as the fulcrum of the English game.

Bath against Wasps, second against first, at the Recreation Ground today is more than enough to kindle the passions of the 'veterans'. 'We went there two years ago and won, so it can be done and we are approaching this match with that feeling,' Clough said. 'Even so, we aren't favourites and we don't feel the pressure at all.

'I've never been in this position with Wasps before and therefore it's exciting for us. It may be tempting fate to say it but I've never gone through so much of a season before without getting a major injury, so it's made a pleasant change. When I get injured, I tend to get bad ones rather than little, niggling ones.'

Clough's fourth and last appearance in the England centre was against the United States in the inaugural World Cup of 1987. Since then he played in the London team who beat Australia in 1988 and was picked for England's 1990 tour of Argentina - only to withdraw with a broken leg. Graham Childs, who replaced Clough, partners him today.

Unlike Swift, Clough is reticent about his long-term England absence, though he remains close enough to have been in the London side this season. Doubtless his straight talking did not endear him to various selectors, though the formation of the Guscott-Carling alliance has not done anything to encourage the aspirations of alternative centres.

Likewise, latterly, the wings - though during the aeon since Swift last represented his country, too many others have come and gone at various representative levels. 'What I could never understand was that I was playing consistently as well as anyone but nobody ever came to me in the last seven or eight years to tell me why I wasn't being selected and what I could improve on,' he said.

'There have been wings who've got as far as the England B side who wouldn't have a hope of getting in the side if they came to Bath. I could never understand why, of all the backs who've played for England from Bath, I was never considered at all for anything.'

This makes the point that all of Swift's half-dozen caps were won from Swansea while he was a student in south Wales. Yet his scoring record is unsurpassed except by Morley, who amassed 475 tries between 1959 and 1986. Last month Swift scored his 350th senior try, of which 139 have been in 195 games for Bath since 1985. By contrast, Clough's injuries have been such that he has yet to play his 100th game in five years with Wasps.

Swift's specific grouse is that in all but one of his England games they stuck him on the wrong wing. 'I can't play on the left to save my life,' he said. 'I was involved in the old England scene when they didn't seem to take it as seriously as they do now. I would like to have played on the right wing in a good England side but it's not something that keeps me awake at nights any more.'

Nor has Swift - or Clough, for that matter - lain awake worrying about tomorrow's occasion, though Swift knows he faces a constant battle to persuade people that he is still fit and able for this level of rugby. 'The older you get, obviously the greater the challenge, especially when people were already calling you a veteran four or five years ago.

'When you get to my age, if you aren't seen to be doing something they seem to think you've got arthritis and can't run any more. They're quick to write you off, but then you start scoring tries again and they're telling you not to retire. The older you get, the more of a roller-coaster you're on.'

Clough, too, knows the feeling. On the one hand, he is quick to say 'I'm only 30'; on the other, he prefaces a remark with 'You get to my age and . . . '. Thus: 'You get to my age and you're less worried about being man of the match if the team are losing. You'd rather the team won by a point and you had a stinker. Anyway, we don't for a moment suggest that if we beat Bath we will definitely win the league; there are three games after that.'

Clough and Swift, the stalwart clubmen, never played together for England; Swift's Test career ended (with the second Test in South Africa in 1984) far too long ago for that. But they represent a common thread in being players from England's bad old days who would have graced the more recent good days.

And they seem to know as much, because you could hardly call them serene in their (relative) dotage. Clough is notoriously reticent in his public pronouncements, whereas at Bath the chatty, engaging Swift has a reputation of a different kind.

'The only thing I wish about Tony is that he didn't moan so much,' Andy Robinson, the Bath captain, said. 'If they gave caps for moaning, he'd be over 50 already.' This, I am assured, is an in-house Bath joke.

(Photograph omitted)

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