Rugby Union: Adventure is central issue: Simon O'Hagan talks to Jeremy Guscott, whose injury has deprived England of artistry

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND may still have a realistic chance of winning the Five Nations' Championship going into their final match against Wales on Saturday, but there is no disguising the lack of flair they have shown in the tournament so far. Not one try, and hardly a threequarter movement to remember. How different would things have been if Jeremy Guscott had been fit?

In a season when England have had more than their fair share of injuries, the absence of Guscott with persistent groin trouble has removed from an otherwise prosaic team the one player capable of introducing a few lines of poetry. In 28 England appearances up to the end of last season the 28-year- old centre had scored 73 points, including 16 tries, and done so mostly with a willowy grace and seeming effortlessness. Hardly characteristics one associates with the 1994 England team.

Guscott's is one of those injuries that doesn't seem serious enough to have warranted keeping him out of first-class rugby for almost an entire season, and to see him shin up an 80ft mast on a yacht on the south coast last week made you wonder what was stopping him gliding across the turf at Twickenham. 'It uses different muscles,' he explained. 'And I'm not sprinting up a mast, I'm taking steps, nice and easy. I can do the majority of training I was doing before I was injured, but I cannot sprint. It becomes very uncomfortable then.'

Guscott has not spent his enforced lay-off carving out a new career as a yachtsman - he has merely taken on the role of presenter of a television series, scheduled for ITV this summer, which the producer says is out to find the fittest couple in Britain. Called Body Heat, a sort of Superstars for the Nineties, it requires Guscott to act as guinea pig and climb the masts and abseil the rock-faces before the competitors do it, and interview them afterwards.

It has helped take his mind off the frustration of not playing rugby. 'It's been easier to come to terms with because it's not as if you're one of the guys who's been left out because the selectors feel you're not good enough or the right type of player for this or that game,' he said. 'Always in the back of my mind I have felt I would be playing if I was fit, and that's not being arrogant or over-

confident. I did find the New Zealand game uncomfortable to sit and watch from the stands, so the others I've watched on TV.'

Not that Guscott has been made to feel forgotten. 'Will Carling still phones me up for a bit of feedback and advice, but that's no different to being a part of team meetings,' Guscott said. 'He's asked me how I've felt the game went, what I felt went wrong.'

Guscott has a novel theory about the lack of England tries. 'It's very interesting to look at the penalty counts against the sides that England are playing,' he said. 'Obviously they realise the danger that there is outside, and rather than letting the ball come out they're killing it and conceding penalties. It's very difficult to stop sides doing that, because your aim is to go forward and to make opportunities, run into space, commit players, and the new laws are allowing players to roll you over and stay on the wrong side and trap the ball. Teams really are concentrating on defensive plays rather than offensive plays.'

Whatever the cause of the problem, England's threequarters have been more than usually isolated this year - a predicament Guscott naturally sympathises with. 'You have to be behind a pack that's dominating if you're to get a considerable amount of ball and not just your seven or eight times,' he says. 'And as we've seen in this championship England didn't dominate the Scotland game, they didn't dominate the Ireland game and to a large extent they didn't dominate the French game. But every side that plays us are that much more determined to beat us than anyone else.'

Of nobody is that more true than Wales. So what should England's tactical approach be? 'It won't vary a lot from what they've done so far in the championship,' Guscott said. 'If the penalty count is similar I'd expect England to score a couple of tries at least. Wales know they can't afford to give penalties away because Rob Andrew's on song at the moment and he'll kick anything from any area of their half. He's on that kind of a crest of a wave.

'Wales will be aiming to play a similar game to the one they played in Cardiff last season where their tackling was supreme and their commitment was unbelievable. I think they'll find it difficult to match that at Twickenham because it'll be a very partisan crowd and England should play on that fact, not worry too much about the expectation. That's always been there and although it's something we've not necessarily been able to control, we've learnt to live with it. It's a question of wearing the opposition down, recycling that ball until there are no more defenders left. People keep on talking about England not scoring tries but again there's got to be a little bit of luck needed for us to cross the line.'

Of the new England generation, Guscott singled out the No 8 Steve Ojomoh for special praise: 'In a matter of only two games he's really made a name for himself. He's 6ft 4in, 161 2 st and runs like a gazelle. If I had that size and weight I'd love it.' But Wales have their danger men, too. 'I think the key player for them is Neil Jenkins - because he's a nervy player. If he gets one out of his first two kicks he's generally on song for the rest of the game. If he misses two or three then he's worried more about his kicking than his decision- making when he gets the ball from the scrum-half. That's the difficulty with having the decision-maker kicking the goals. I've never seen a player miss kicks and still be able to play his normal game.'

Would that Guscott could play any kind of game at all. He reckons it will take another seven weeks before he will be fully fit again. Geoff Cooke had agreed that if Guscott felt he was ready he would be sure of a place in the England party which leaves for South Africa in May. But that was before Cooke's resignation.

'I'll have to wait and see who the new manager is and take up talks with him,' Guscott said. 'But I don't think it's essential for me to play again to prove I'm fit.' England's form this season suggests that, whatever happens against Wales, they can ill afford to do without Guscott's talents.

(Photograph omitted)