Rugby Union: Guscott a monument under threat: English rugby's centre of excellence is running out of patience in his long struggle for fitness. Chris Rea reports

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The Independent Online
IN rugby terms Jeremy Guscott is a national treasure. Were he a building he would be listed, and any attempts at alteration would be subject to the most stringent controls. Yet this centre of elegance has been unoccupied for almost a year, the facade of equanimity being gradually eroded by a succession of disappointments. One question keeps nagging away at Guscott. Were he a Cantona, a Platt or a Shearer, would he still be sitting helplessly in the stand on a Saturday afternoon, as uncertain now of his rugby future as he was on that mid- October afternoon in 1993 when he played his last competitive game?

No professionally run organisation could afford to keep one of its most valuable assets idle for so long. The player would either be fit to play or would have been told that his playing days were over. 'I must admit that there have been times during the last few months when I have felt thoroughly brassed off,' Guscott says. 'I feel that more positive action could perhaps have been taken, but I am in the hands of the Rugby Football Union and Nigel Henderson (their honorary surgeon), and until they tell me that there is nothing more they can do that's the way it will remain. I know they are doing all they can to get me back on to the field.'

Guscott has been the model patient: no outward sign of the intense frustration he has been experiencing, no tantrums, no threats to seek a quack with the miracle cure or the second opinion which so many of his friends and acquaintances have advised. 'Everyone, it seems, knows this top consultant who says he can have me right as rain within a couple of weeks. But my patience will outlast my injury, no matter how long it takes to heal. I have to take the view that I will play again but whether it is next week or next year, I really don't know.'

Guscott's groin injury is the result of constant wear and tear to the pelvic girdle which has gradually become looser and looser over the years. In March he underwent surgery to tighten the muscle around that area and was told to take a complete rest following a six- week period of rehabilitation. Since his summer break he has been sticking rigidly to the training programme laid down for him, a daily routine of swimming, jogging and brisker running designed to have him back playing next month. 'My aim is to be fit to play in the latter part of October, but in my heart of hearts I know that things are not yet quite as they should be.'

The medical term for Guscott's problem is osteitis pubis, a condition not uncommon among professional footballers, although less so nowadays than it was when training techniques lacked sophistication and there was little awareness of the physical damage inflicted on top- class sportsmen engaged in contact sports. Despite the advances made in sports medicine, rugby continues to take a disturbingly cavalier view of the kind of repetitive strain injury which is bedevilling Guscott. There is a tendency to attribute the cause to mental attitude rather than physical malfunction. Real or imaginary is a question which inevitably at some stage finds its way into the player's psyche with an injury of this nature, and it is one of the hardest to answer. Until Guscott pulled up sharply during a training session at the beginning of last season he had no previous history of such an injury, and is therefore unlikely to have established a hang-up over his condition.

Guscott's loyalty to those who are treating him is admirable, but not only has the game been denied one of its most lustrous talents for too long, but in the sham that rugby union has now become, Guscott himself is being denied a considerable amount of income. He therefore owes it to himself if not to his legions of admirers to seek the best possible advice. It may well be that he is already receiving it, but it can do no harm to get an alternative viewpoint in his quest for the definitive answer to the problem. No one, surely, would blame him for trying.

One suspects, however, that even if the very worst happens and Guscott, 29, is told that he will never play again, it won't be the end of his world. 'I think if I had been told that when I was starting my international career five years ago, then it would have been a different story. But I have achieved a lot in the game and I have had so much enjoyment out of it that inevitably one's ambition becomes a little dulled. That's not to say that I'm not desperately keen to get back and to regain my place in the England side, but if things go against me I know that I'll be able to cope.'

There are other priorities, different challenges these days. One is to make his way steadily up the management ladder with British Gas for whom he works as a public relations executive. The other is to heighten his involvement in the media and especially in television, a medium to which, with his looks and unflappable temperament, he seems ideally suited. As one of the presenters of Body Heat, a fitness programme designed for all the family, which was transmitted during the summer, he found himself in an awkward situation. 'I had to have my operation between the filming of the last heat and the final, with the result that the least fit person on the programme was me.'

He enjoyed the format of the programme and the freedom it allowed for self-

expression, but no matter what offers come his way in the future, television will amount to nothing more than an enjoyable sideline. His work and, he hopes, his play with Bath and England come first. 'My target is 22 October. If I can't make that then I'll set another target and I'll keep setting targets until the day comes when someone has to tell me that my playing days are over.'

(Photograph omitted)