Rugby Union: Guscott taking it all in his smooth stride: England's model centre returns for Bath today after a year out through injury. Steve Bale spoke to him

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SURELY after all this time out of rugby, the man with everything ('gorgeous, articulate, self-possessed without being arrogant', as his agent once described him) except his fitness has become fed up, or at the very least impatient? Not a bit of it. Jeremy Guscott is at last about to make his comeback and he is as blithely untroubled as if he had never been away.

So the seven England caps, the tour of South Africa, the cup and league double, all the things that have passed him by during this unfortunate time are not worth even the mildest regret. What concerns Guscott is the here and now of Bath's First Division match at West Hartlepool this afternoon.

It seems it is only the rest of us who have felt the frustration of a year without the sublime skills of the finest centre in the land, though the fact that he is willing - even eager - to plunge straight into first- team action betrays that Guscott is in more of a hurry than he lets on. Not least, he is in his 30th year and there is a 29th England cap to be won against Romania next month.

As for the past year, it has merely reinforced Guscott's laudable view that there is a lot more to life than rugby football. 'What is, is,' he philosophised. 'It hasn't worried me at all. When you are given the information that an injury is going to be long term, there's nothing whatsoever you can do to change that. There is no miraculous cure.'

Guscott had returned from the 1993 Lions tour of New Zealand with a groin strain which ultimately developed into a chronic pelvic condition. He managed only two league appearances last season, the second against Gloucester on 2 October. His final game before today, his final breakdown, was against the South African Barbarians on 6 November.

There followed an operation and a recuperation so protracted that it gave rise to suggestions that Guscott was unhappy with the treatment he was receiving. This he now denies, though interestingly this week's decision to make himself available was his own rather than his doctors' and he still has six weeks of physiotherapy before his treatment will be complete.

The way Guscott tells it, he simply accepted the medical diagnosis and resigned himself to what others would have considered a miserable fate. 'Nigel Henderson (the Rugby Football Union surgeon) said at the very beginning that people recover from these injuries and there was no need to fear that my playing career would be in jeopardy,' he said.

Guscott has been training with Bath all season but not until this week did he put himself through a full physical work-out with the forwards. Whether he would have been better advised to have a more gentle reintroduction in the second team at Moseley is a good question, but the point for Bath is that, if he emerges hale and hearty from Hartlepool, he would then be ready for the all-important game against Leicester next Saturday.

To anyone else, it would be a daunting prospect but to Guscott, with that characteristically insouciant air of his, it is almost as if today's - or next week's, for that matter - were just another game. Mind you, he does realise that everyone at Brierton Lane will be looking for something reminiscent of the Guscott of fond memory.

Not least among them, the England selectors. 'People can have their own opinions; I just want to get out and play,' Guscott said. 'There are going to be comparisons with how I played 12 months ago and 12 months before that. You are always judged by your highest performance and I don't mind that.

'I've had a year off and I can't really say how it will go because I'm straight back into the scene and playing competitive rugby again. The time for reflection is over and things will just have to take their natural course. I've played for England before and I hope to play again but I wouldn't say it's on my mind.'

In Guscott's case, 'highest performance' is positively Himalayan and he is all too aware of people's expectations before he has so much as taken the field. He began for England, remember, with three tries on his 1989 debut against Romania and two months later, when promoted to the Lions team who won the second Test in Australia, scored a try of sensational confidence and virtuosity, accelerating on to his own grubber-kick.

In those two matches he set a standard by which he would forever be judged and, however restrictive England's subsequent strategy may have been, he has usually lived up to it. The inspiration of an injury- free Jerry Guscott would therefore be of incalculable worth to England as they plot their course to next year's World Cup.

'I'm not even thinking about the World Cup yet,' he said. 'There is a league and cup campaign for Bath that is foremost in my mind and I don't think until the final Five Nations game when England play Scotland in March and the World Cup squad is then announced that I can start to do so.'

In any case, as Guscott points out, he has never been one for making long-term sporting plans and after his year-long sabbatical is still less inclined to do so. On the contrary, he is perfectly content to focus on the short term and, not withstanding the overwhelming attention, even denies being nervous about his comeback.

'It will be nice to get the first three or four weeks of playing out of the way - and then all the talk, all the speculation, all the conversations will be done and dusted and there will be another topic to write about.' He should be so lucky.

(Photograph omitted)