Rugby Union: Days of Brits and benchmarks

Bristol scrum-half Baber is one of many domestic talents forced to play second fiddle to foreign flair
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The Independent Online
IN ONE RESPECT, rugby's shambolic conversion to professionalism has followed a lead from football: if in doubt sign a star, preferably one from overseas. Bristol may have failed in their bid to secure the greatest name in the game - last week the All Black wing Jonah Lomu settled for Wellington, New Zealand rather than the West Country - but they have been proactive in almost every other position.

Agustin Pichot of Argentina and Henry Honiball of South Africa are the new half-backs in a Bristol squad which has been transformed by the club's Australian coach, Bob Dwyer, with the help of a considerable investment from the chairman, Malcolm Pearce.

Of the players who carried Bristol to promotion to the Premiership earlier this year only seven remain; from three years ago there are three survivors. One of them is Gareth Baber, a talented scrum-half who once took centre stage and is now relegated, for the most part, to the role of understudy.

"Baber's play has been exemplary," Darryl Jones, the assistant coach, said, "but it's unfortunate for him that someone with outstanding ability has come along. Pichot is a class act. He has so much vision it's unbelievable. It's a tough world, but you're not doing too badly if you're second best to somebody like Pichot."

If Baber is disillusioned, he disguises it beautifully. "I looked at the options and decided I wanted to be involved with a successful club," he said. "I'm ambitious, but if I keep chopping and changing clubs I'm not going to guarantee myself a first-team place.

"I want to continue developing and I want to compete. The scrum-half I'm competing with is one of the best in the world. There are a lot of good players sitting on the bench throughout the country, and the figure is unlikely to decrease. I'll keep working and take the opportunities when they come."

Like today. Bristol are rest-ricted to fielding two overseas players, in this case Honiball and Luke Nabaro, so Pichot sits out the European Shield match with Calvisano (formerly Milan) at the Memorial Ground. Honiball, who kicked 23 points in Bristol's 28-21 win in Dax last weekend, partners Baber for the first time.

Baber, though, is not unaccustomed to bench duty, and he could compare notes with Andy Moore, the former Wales and Richmond scrum-half now with Treviso. Both were at Llanishen High School, both went to Swansea and Oxford Universities and both played for Cardiff, Baber understudying Moore. In 1994 Baber was on course for a Blue until he was displaced by a South African for the Varsity Match. Moore, as Baber had done for Bristol, played a significant part in helping Richmond win promotion and was relegated to the bench when Pichot joined the London club.

"I think Agustin has something against Welshmen," Baber said. "In fact he's a nice bloke, very friendly, but whether that makes things easier or not I don't know. I'm not made to feel small by what's happened. I get a bit cheesed off at not getting my weekly fix of rugby, but I realise I can't have the best of both worlds."

Pichot, who joined Bristol with several colleagues following Richmond's demise, said: "I've never seen Baber play but I hear that he's very good." Baber, on the other hand, has had a chance not only to see Pichot play, in the World Cup, but to study him at first hand.

"The first thing that struck me is that he's a lot less physical than most scrum-halves," the Welshman said of the Argentinian. "There's less contact and it's interesting to see how he does it and how well he does it. He has a very high skill level allied to speed and sharpness. He's unorthodox but somehow it fits with the pattern of play. I've tried to help Pichot settle in by going through the various moves, but he also brings his own plays. I wouldn't have thought he'd learn a great deal from me other than the best way to cross the Severn Bridge."

After spells with Llanelli and Cardiff, Baber was playing for Aberavon against Bristol when he was approached by Alan Davies, then coach of the West Country club. The timing could have been better. Bristol's problems multiplied to the point where the receivers were called in, players left and the club looked likely to go under.

"It was a time for slight panic," Baber said. "I got married three days after the ann-ouncement that the club was bankrupt, and none of us knew where the next cheque was coming from." On honeymoon in the Maldives with Danielle, an RSPCA inspector from Cardiff (they have two dogs and two cats), Baber was kept up to date about the financial crisis via faxes sent by his father, an economics lecturer at Cardiff University.

The club were not only saved by the involvement of Pearce, a local businessman, but revitalised. "The changes were immediate," Baber said, "and people started to smile again. The players are a lot more involved with the club, and they try to integrate us into everything. It's not them and us.

"We also have the benefit of Bob Dwyer's philosophy on life. He's very forthright and you don't get away with anything, either on the training field or off it. In group chats you're encouraged to make the best of what you are. If you're going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, whether it be on the rugby field, in business or your private life. It's very Australian."

Baber, whose annual salary is pounds 27,500, believes that at the age of 27 he has another five years as a professional rugby player before putting his education to use in the marketplace. "It's not the most secure job and we are all aware it's a cut-throat business. The big will get stronger and the weak will fall by the wayside. The plan is for Bristol to be one of the big clubs in England going into the millennium."

With Bristol fighting on all fronts, Baber is hoping for more than a walk-on part. "We are very fortunate to have a player like Baber," Darryl Jones said. "It's not so great for him but it's good for us."