Rugby Union: Five Nations Countdown - Guscott still showing no signs of mortality

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The Independent Online
Jeremy Guscott dismisses the extraordinary level of interest generated by his return to England colours as "weird", but mere mortals remain astonished by his powers of recovery. As Chris Hewett reports, Guscott's appearance against France in Paris on Saturday marks the high point of his achievement.

It was Andy Robinson, the Bath coach and a long-time playing colleague of Jeremy Guscott's, who hit the nail on the head. Asked to assess the risk involved in selecting the celebrated Prince of Centres for last weekend's Heineken Cup final on the strength of one match in six and a half months, Robbo responded: "Risk? What risk? There's no risk in selecting a player of Jerry's ability."

"OK," replied a persistent inquisitor. "How many players are blessed with such ability?" Robinson narrowed his eyes, stared at his questioner as though he was completely barking and turned away to talk to someone with a handle on reality. It was an understandable reaction; no one who has played either with or against Guscott these last dozen years or so would have considered an answer necessary.

Trillions of words have been penned on the subject of Guscott's unique contribution to British threequarter play since his England debut in 1989, a fair percentage of them in the wake of his two great Test-winning strikes for the Lions - the kick-and-gather try in Brisbane on his first tour nine years ago and the last-minute drop goal that beat the Springboks in Durban last June.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Clive Woodward's decision to run his favourite centre at the Stade de France on Saturday on the strength of approximately three hours of rugby constitutes a new high- water mark. Guscott's last Test appearance, against South Africa in Johannesburg in July, cost him a broken arm and when he subsequently picked up some serious damage to a disc in his lower back during rehabilitative training with Bath last September, the game appeared to be up.

Many of his closest club colleagues expected him to call it quits. He was 32, surgery was required and anyway, he had done it all umpteen times over. He had played for the Lions in every major rugby stronghold in the southern hemisphere, he had appeared in a World Cup final, he had won Grand Slams and Triple Crowns by the sackload and had pocketed more domestic league and cup final medals than he knew what to do with.

Those colleagues were wrong. "I'm a rugby player and I play because I love the game," Guscott said this week. "Why would I want to retire now? We've got a World Cup to think about next year and while there is a chance of being part of the England squad, I'm focusing on playing on at the best level I can."

All the same, it is difficult to think of another player anywhere in the world who would be thrown into what is certain to be an extreme physical and psychological trial in such unpropitious circumstances. Guscott loves playing in Paris, but a France-England Test is no one's idea of garden party.

"Look, I've played two full games since coming back, the first of which I ended up losing, the second of which was the greatest day in my club's history. I'm enjoying my rugby and helping Bath beat Brive has put my confidence levels on a high.

"If the atmosphere in Bordeaux was anything to go by, the French are crazy for rugby at the moment. It will be spine-tingling over there. If you add to that the fact that England are playing some pretty expansive stuff at the moment, you could say I'm looking forward to this weekend.

"But I must say I find a lot of the attention coming my way a bit on the weird side. I'm one player in an exciting squad focused on the big games coming up and nothing else has any relevance. My only goal after the operation was to recover some health and fitness and play for Bath. To get picked for England now was not something I expected, but I'm chuffed to bits to be involved again."

It now seems certain that Guscott, who wins his 49th England cap in Paris, will realise one of the few tangible ambitions left to him: membership of the exclusive Red Rose 50 Club. Only seven players have hung in there long enough to gain admission and all of them - Rory Underwood, Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Brian Moore, Peter Winterbottom, Wade Dooley and Jason Leonard - experienced Guscott's genius at first hand. Indeed, they all played against Australia in the 1991 World Cup final.

Guscott and Leonard are the only components of that side still plying their trade at the most rarified level, although Andrew and Underwood remain active in the Allied Dunbar Premiership. It will be no surprise to discover the "JJs" - Jerry and Jason, both educated at state comprehensives, both renowned as players' players - in a quiet corner of some bar in the Rue de la Madeleine on Saturday night. After all, they have almost as much to look forward to as they have in common.

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