Rugby: A turn for the worse - Jon Sleightholme- At least '97 has a happy ending

Millstones of '97: From the batting idol who remains an enigma to the fighter cornered by calamity
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The Independent Online
There is no doubt where Jon Sleightholme could be found this past year at the fairground of life - on the roller-coaster. His switchback year has touched some marvellous highs - six more appearances for England, a pocketful of tries and his wedding, to his long-term girlfriend Julie.

But there have been many more than a fair share of lows as well. Missing out with the rest of the Bath squad on any of the normal silverware last season; being overlooked for the Lions; a less than flattering (or entirely accurate) portrayal throughout a high-profile fly-on-the-wall television documentary on Bath; then, most dramatically, a loss of form at the start of this season, and ultimate rejection by the club.

"I felt angry when I first learned I was on the transfer list," the 25- year-old Yorkshireman said. "I'd given up a lot to come to the West Country three and a half years before and I felt in that time I had given a lot to Bath.

"I suppose it was the lowest point of the year, finding out I was no longer wanted. I had come down knowing no one and I fell in love with the place; the club, the city, the people. To this day I don't really know why it happened. If I've upset anybody I don't know about it. Andy Robinson [Bath's coach] and I have remained good friends."

At the time he even flirted with the prospect of retiring. He had a dozen hard-earned caps for England and had shared in a great deal of Bath's silver gathering in his time at the Rec. "I did think of giving up rugby," Sleightholme confessed. "You contemplate anything and everything at a time like that. I asked myself if all the stress and hassle was worth it. But once I had phoned my Dad and my brothers I knew there was so much more to come from me."

Sleightholme is not the type to sit and mope and feel sorry for himself. "Once I'd realised that I wanted to carry on I welcomed the opportunity for a move. I was back in the shop window again and as it happened I found myself playing five games for Bath while I was up for sale. That was one of my biggest tests as a professional. I knew I had to play well and give the club 100 per cent throughout, despite the fact that they no longer wanted me. Anything less would mean other clubs would not want me."

The wing was promptly snapped up by the Lions coach Ian McGeechan in his club role, and moved to Northampton, where he has settled in remarkably quickly. In a way that is no great surprise. Franklins Gardens has been a second home for many other distinguished Yorkshiremen, including the former England captain Geoff Butterfield, the wing Frank Sykes and the present captain Tim Rodber.

"To be honest I think Northampton's style of play is more suited to me than Bath's was," Sleightholme, who was born in Malton, said. "Saints play 15-man, total rugby and coming into this side is exciting. They want to use me."

But the move has not blinded Sleightholme, a qualified PE teacher, from realising one absolute truth about professional sport in general and rugby in particular: "The players are nothing more than pieces of meat, being moved from slab to slab. I'm not whingeing about that, because it's a fact of professional life. We are the club's assets and far from being an isolated thing, I think transfers are going to increase. Rugby's transfer market will be as busy as Marks & Spencer on Christmas Eve."

So looking back, it might be fair to assume then that Sleightholme would regard 1997 as his personal annus horribilis.

Not so. "How could I say that?" he said. "OK, it has been a year of ups and downs, but there were highs such as being part of the way England played in the Five Nations, and getting married in the summer was another high for me.

"Now there has been the change to a new club, Northampton, a fresh challenge and a chance to start my career again. Looking back on this year, overall I have to say I'm a very lucky person.

"My main aim is to help Northampton finish in the top four in the Allied Dunbar Premiership this season. And ultimately, if I am playing well for my club then I will be waving my flag to Clive Woodward [England's coach]. "I have to regard Northampton as a launch pad for me to get back into the England team again."

To that end he is working hard on every aspect of his game, honing his natural skills and polishing what he sees as the flawed facets of his repertoire.

There is not a hint that he will opt for the merry-go-round in the 1998 fairground. Much more likely that another roller-coaster ride beckons.

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