Rugby Union: Gibbs prepared to be centre of attention: Dave Hadfield meets the rugby player with a troubled past who is now a Saint

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The Independent Online
NO PLAYER will be scrutinised more closely on the opening weekend of the rugby league season than Scott Gibbs. No change there; his track record on and off the pitch in South Wales suggests that Gibbs is a young man who needs watching.

Gibbs, who makes his competitive debut at centre for St Helens against newly promoted Doncaster this afternoon, has brought a mixed reputation north, with his undisputed playing talent undermined by a talent for getting into scrapes off the field. Transgressions on the streets of St Helens will be pounced upon just as eagerly as they were in Swansea, so Gibbs is fortunate to have new employers who are aware of the pitfalls and are looking out for him.

Eric Hughes, the St Helens coach, was a famously tough and disciplined centre in his playing days. Eric Ashton, the club chairman, was one of the game's models of rectitude as well as its best centre during his long career.

Ashton admits to having had second thoughts about Gibbs when he turned them down previously. 'But every time we went back to Wales looking for a centre, everyone told us the same thing - that Scott Gibbs was the one. Even when he signed for us - it was in a pub near Warrington - he turned to me and asked: 'Eric, do you think I've done the right thing?' I said: 'Well, you've done it now.' '

Gibbs, after a summer training with his new team- mates, has put those doubts on one side. 'I'm enjoying it and I'd advise anyone else in the same situation that it's not something to be feared,' he says. 'The thing that has made it easier is that there has been no resentment from the players. They have included me in all the social side of things and that has helped a lot.'

Gibbs being Gibbs, his switch of codes and settling-in period have not been without a spot of controversy, starting with a furious outburst from Swansea on the theme of 'nev-

er darken this clubhouse'. 'I think Scott wanted to switch but was frightened of doing so because he feared that sort of reaction,' says Ashton.

Gibbs, himself, is philosophical about it now. 'I know that the feelings of a lot of people within the Swansea club were very different,' he says. 'I think it was a case of what the chairman thought he had to say for public consumption.'

The ripples from that had barely subsided when Gibbs unleashed another fusillade with his comments on payments in Welsh rugby union. The startled reaction to that genuinely puzzles him. 'I thought I was about the 101st person to say that,' he says. 'It's nothing new, but people pounced on it because I'm the latest convert.'

Reaction in some union circles was that Gibbs should put up or shut up. He is more likely to do the latter than start naming players who were the beneficiaries of tax-free largesse, and Saints would much rather that he steered clear of such distractions.

'I blew my top with him over that,' Ashton says. 'In fairness to him, he said he was only saying what Jonathan Davies and others had said before him. But I told him not to say anything about rugby union from now on.'

Ashton has been delighted to see Gibbs strike up an instant friendship with Anthony Sullivan, who is one of the club's more level-headed players. He was even more delighted to see the way Gibbs came through an awkward baptism in his new code in last week's pre-season match against Widnes. Gibbs came on for the second half and found himself the target of sledging from the Widnes side - which doubtless intensified when he dropped the first pass he received.

'At the end of the match, he just looked at me and said: 'Bloody hell, it's a hard game this, Eric,' ' Ashton says. By then, however, he had already shown his quality by scoring two tries, having a hand in several others and generally excelling as Saints pulled away.

'He was trying very hard to impress,' Ashton says. 'And he's going to put a bit of steel into our side. He's not slow, but he's also very strong and a good defender.' Gibbs himself admits to some surprise at what he has let himself in for. In his first game since a knee injury last December, he was inevitably lacking in match condition. 'It wasn't my legs, it was my lungs,' he says. 'You don't know until you get out there how hard they

are going to hit you or how hard it's going to be to break through. I'm going to have to pace myself a bit more.'

Although Gibbs believes it will be six games at least before he is seen at his best, Ashton is already convinced that he has what it takes to make headlines for all the right reasons.