Rugby Union / Five Nations' Focus: Geoghegan back to speed: Tim Glover talks to Ireland's flying machine who hopes to put a troubled year behind him and stake a claim for a share of the Lions' tour

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The Independent Online
SIMON Geoghegan had a startling impact on international rugby. There was the eye-catching hair, a barnet more white than fair, and the frantic forays that left the impression that here was a man who would run around, or preferably through, anything. 'I'm a very competitive individual,' he said, 'and I hate losing.'

He hates losing and he plays for Ireland, a team of losers, when he could have played for England? He must be Irish. He doesn't just hate losing, he hates giving interviews. Geoghegan, who plays against Scotland at Murrayfield today, was born in Barnet, London, and educated at St Edmund's College, a boarding school in Ware, which is where he learnt his rugby. 'I have a great affinity with Ireland,' he said. 'I've spent a lot of time there. I've never thought of playing for anyone else.' His middle name is Patrick, the name of his father, a property developer who comes from Killimor in Co Galway.

Ireland had found a right wing of genuine menace. 'I like hitting people as hard as I possibly can,' Geoghegan said. 'It is psychologically very demoralising and it makes them think twice.' When they introduced him to the Five Nations' Championship in 1991 they discovered he needed no introduction. Geoghegan scored tries against Wales, England and Scotland and won the Rugby Writers of Ireland player of the year award.

His try against England was a gem. Given the ball on the short side and with almost no room to manoeuvre, Geoghegan managed to beat Rory Underwood on the outside and the right-hand corner flag on the inside. The distance between the two could have been measured by a micrometer. World class finishing. Yet in the World Cup he barely received a pass and last season, when Ireland were whitewashed, he spent most of his time chasing shadows. It raised doubts in some minds. 'He's the most aggressive wing I've ever seen,' Mike Gibson, the former Ireland No 8 said. 'He chases every ball and makes his back row realise there's a better than even chance of catching somebody in possession.'

Gibson, however, is not alone in subscribing to the theory that the opposition have worked out ways to close Geoghegan down. 'They will have analysed his every move by constantly hitting the replay button on the video. Terry Kennedy was a classic example. He had a terrific sidestep but when we played the All Blacks he sidestepped straight into tackles. They simply waited for him.'

Geoghegan knows it was a bad year. 'People told me the second season would be harder and for me it was, not so much from playing but the other side of things.' There was a family bereavement and the matter of studying for a law degree at London University. It curtailed his training and he was neither mentally nor physically ready. During the World Cup he seemed to be in a world of his own, armed with a personal stereo and a law book.

Geoghegan, who is 24 and who has 28-year-old twin sisters (one a civil engineer, the other a town planner), is in his first year with a firm of solicitors in Fleet Street. He is unusual in that after leaving school he had no intention of playing rugby. A friend took him along to Wasps Colts and he joined London Irish as a teenager in 1988 with the aim of playing for their under-21 side. In a club trial he went straight into the senior team, scored a try and reluctantly came off to have stitches inserted in a head wound.

With the Exiles he has grown up in a back line that includes the internationals David Curtis, Rob Saunders and Jim Staples. They will shortly be joined by Niall Malone. Staples, forced to withdraw from the game against Scotland, trains with Geoghegan on a running track at Battersea. 'I've heard comments about him being a one season wonder,' Staples said. 'They're uninformed. He has a great hunger and enthusiasm. He's never fully tackled until he's on the floor and his defensive qualities are overlooked. He's great for a full-back to play with because he deflects attention. When Brian Smith joined rugby league Ireland's style changed and that is something Simon suffered from. Any wing needs time and space. Even Rory Underwood wouldn't be effective without it.

'When you play against England there are a number of players to mark. Against Ireland you can focus on one or two. I'd like to see how the other wings would perform in a green shirt, how they would cope with the amount of defensive work. I'd like to see him given a chance for the Lions.'

Ireland are not expected to be a major contributor to the British Lions tour to New Zealand. 'I want to go on it but it's going to be very, very difficult,' Geoghegan said. 'if we get whitewashed . . . I don't see any reason why England can't win the whole thing again and they have second and third choice players who are better than us.

'We have a small pool and we've never been a really strong rugby nation but if we can get our organisation right and our fitness there is no reason why we can't compete. The trouble is we're always losing good players. Pride and blood and thunder is no longer enough.

'It is very frustrating and you can see how frustrated a player like Brendan Mullin was throughout his career.' Ireland have taken some very big hits which must be psychologically demoralising but the animated Geoghegan, for one, remains full of running.

(Photograph omitted)