Rugby Union: Guscott's dream ticket to Paris begins on Tyneside

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The Independent Online
Jeremy Guscott has always looked on Paris as one of his favourite rugby cities and there is a growing likelihood of his making a welcome England comeback in the lair of Les Tricolores in a little over three weeks' time. Chris Hewett hears the Prince of Centres weigh up the prospects of a dramatic return to national colours.

As befits the most lustrous of midfield diamonds, Jeremy Guscott possesses impeccable timing, a highly developed self-preservation instinct and an eye for the main chance. If the incomparably gifted Bath centre wins himself a Five Nations place against the French on 7 February - and increasing amounts of smart money say that he will - it would be no great surprise if he ran in a hat-trick of tries and dropped a match-winning goal before disappearing down the tunnel a couple of minutes early, just to catch the bathwater at the optimum temperature.

"I am as fit as I could possibly be," said the 32-year-old triple Lion as England's elite gathered for a tactical tutorial at Bisham Abbey yesterday. "The only thing I haven't got in the tank is some match fitness, and I hope to correct that very soon."

By "soon", he meant this weekend. Provided all goes well in what is certain to be an ultra-physical double squad session with Bath today, Guscott will make himself available for the Allied Dunbar Premiership confrontation with Newcastle at Gateshead on Sunday. "I'm midway through my first week of contact work now and I've suffered no ill effects thus far," he said. "We'll know more once I've played, though, and I'd like to think Sunday is a possibility."

Guscott has not laced up his boots in anger since the final Lions Test in Johannesburg in early July, during which he suffered a broken left arm. Subsequently, he developed serious disc problems in his lower back and went under the knife in November. Many observers, not least a clear majority of the Bath first team squad, suspected he would call it a day, yet his appetite for the rigours of an unforgiving game seem undiminished.

"How could anyone with any ambition as a rugby player not have been turned on by that second Test we played against New Zealand at Twickenham last month?" he asked, the old competitive glint in his eyes. "It was great to watch, but it would have been even greater to have played. You can't always deliver 15-man rugby - the Lions produced some terrific stuff against the South African provincial teams but the Tests were necessarily more rigid - yet this England side has proved it can play total rugby and match the best."

Bath have so many problems on their plate at the moment that it is a minor miracle that the Newcastle fixture has not slipped their minds completely, but word from the Recreation Ground suggests Guscott may be selected among the replacements this weekend - a move that would virtually guarantee him a run at some stage. Certainly, Clive Woodward, the England coach and a fully signed-up member of the Guscott fan club, plans to send a pair of eyes to Tyneside just in case.

A second triumphant Lion, the Test No 8 Tim Rodber, has not suffered anything like the injury trauma that spiked Guscott's guns during the first half of the season, but in many ways he has far more ground to make up. While England's midfield remains in a state of flux, the enforced revamp of the back row was one of the outstanding successes of the four- Test SANZA series in the autumn.

"My injuries have been frustrating but you have to take it on the chin and get on with life," said the Northampton captain, who might well have faced the Springboks at Twickenham in November had he not been concussed while playing for an England second-string against the midweek All Blacks at Bristol. "I have to do two things now: firstly, I need to fit in with the new regime and, secondly, I must keep playing well at club level. I've played seven on the trot now so I'm back to full fitness, at least."

Simon Holmes, the London Scottish flanker who survived last Saturday's cup tie at Bath with both ears intact, heard some good news from the Scottish selectors yesterday. He will make his Test debut at 31 against Italy in Treviso on Saturday week after edging out the equally venerable Ian Smith.

Two of Newcastle's Lions contingent, Doddie Weir and Alan Tait, return after injury at lock and centre respectively, while Gary Armstrong gets the nod over Andy Nicol at scrum-half. Other changes to the side who lost 68-10 to the Springboks last month sees Tony Stanger back on the right wing and George Graham, another Tyneside exile, at prop.