Rugby Union: A prop for the new age: Victor Ubogu

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I BLAME the Pontypool front row. After years as the butt of everyone's humour, they began to give props a good name and almost overnight the clones of Barry John and Phil Bennett turned into miniatures of Graham Price and Charlie Faulkner. If Faulkner was built along more traditional lines, Price, whose sprint down the field at Parc des Princes in 1975 remains a vivid memory, most certainly was not. He, more than any other individual, was the progenitor of the modern prop forward, the embodiment of which is Victor Ubogu.

Ubogu enjoys the best of both worlds, hunting with the pack and running with the hares, and, on England's day of days against the All Blacks at Twickenham, reigned supreme in both. Explosively quick in the loose, he has painstakingly and sometimes painfully learned his trade in the tight. At last he can enjoy the fruits of his labours.

He is a man at peace with himself and with the world at large. If Sean Fitzpatrick made that racist remark, and Ubogu certainly wasn't aware that he had, it wouldn't have upset him one jot. 'I've always been self- confident - very conscious of what I am and what I can and cannot do. For the past few years people have been telling me to be patient and that my time would come. Sod it. My time is now, not in the future.'

At 29, Ubogu can be forgiven for believing that time is not his staunchest ally, the long- held tenet that front-row life begins at 30 having been well and truly scuppered by Jason Leonard and the kindergarten tendency.

A prop, as its name suggests, has for so long been dismissed as a support, and a static one at that, around which others more athletically gifted could cavort. The labourers at the front were not encouraged to join in, and if they did, they were regarded with deep suspicion. 'So much of the criticism of my scrummaging arose because of my involvement in the loose, and was based on the entirely illogical assumption that I couldn't do both well.'

Props, like politicians, are as cussedly reluctant to admit to their own weaknesses as they are to acknowledge the strengths of their opponents, and Ubogu is no exception. He rejects any suggestion that his dramatic surges in open play have reduced his effectiveness as a scrummager. 'If I believed that, I would have given up top- class rugby long ago,' he says, before adding mischievously, 'and taken up the game in London.'

It was for this very reason that Ubogu chose Bath as his testing ground. Playing every week in such exalted company, he would know soon enough whether or not he was going to make the grade. In his early years at school in Devon, he had joined those long-term unemployed on the wing, the traditonal bolt-hole for boys who haven't a clue about the laws and who would rather be playing soccer. It was only when one of the props called off at the 11th hour that Ubogu, by now the second-biggest boy in the class, was pulled in from the cold to replace him.

Thus began his initiation into the mysterious freemasonry of the front row. And when Ubogu eventually joined Bath in 1988, after a little friendly persuasion from Simon Halliday and Stuart Barnes during his year at Oxford, it was as a specialist loose-head, the position filled, almost to overflowing, by the fabled Gareth Chilcott. 'I found that first season very frustrating. I would be picked to play for the first team in a few friendly games and then would have to sit it out on the bench for the competitive matches.'

Ubogu was confident enough of winning a regular place, it was just a question of when. Richard Lee and Chilcott were the sturdy cornerstones of a pack which was without equal in the English game and of a side which was winning its matches. But by now Ubogu had made the most important decision of all, and that was to remain at Bath.

To have left would have been an admission of failure, which neither his pride nor his competitive spirit would have allowed. Without the weekly exposure to top-class rugby, his fitness levels had dropped and there were too few opportunities to improve his scrummaging technique. 'But I wasn't too worried. My priorities in that first season were to hold my own and to establish myself in the first team squad. The fitness and the technical improvements would follow.' When his chance came the next season, it was taken with alacrity.

Ubogu and Bath are right for each other. All that talent and not a prima donna among them. 'Week in, week out, you are playing in the midst of the harshest of all critics - not the press, not the crowd, not even the coach, but your own team- mates. A bad game and they are the first to let you know.'

At the end of that tumultuous occasion at Twickenham a fortnight ago, Ubogu ventured into the All Blacks' changing room. 'Total silence. The players were numb with shock, their eyes staring, their faces drawn. It reminded me of Bath after we've lost.' It disappoints Ubogu that so few sides in the country react in this way to defeat. 'So many teams come to the Recreation Ground expecting to lose and it's the wrong attitude.'

Ubogu even detected it in the eyes and from the body language of some of the England players in the build-up to the game with the All Blacks. 'I was confident that the Bath players in the side knew we could win, but I wasn't at all sure about some of the others.'

At no stage during the game did Ubogu believe that England would lose. He had a storming match and in the tight confounded those critics who said that he couldn't scrummage. 'They'd been saying that ever since the Canada match last season, forgetting that I'd just recently switched from the loose to the tight-head.' Even the England selectors were unconvinced and Ubogu was told after the victory over South Africa that he would be replaced by Jeff Probyn for the opening game in the Five Nations' Championship against France. Probyn held his place for the rest of the season.

Now Ubogu, a long-time traveller in the new age of rugby, has finally arrived. There are unlikely to be more hostile bids by Probyn, or any other prop for the foreseeable future. But Ubogu is still not satisfied - 'I won't rest until the day when there's not a winger anywhere in the world fast enough to catch me.'

(Photograph omitted)