SPIKE MILLIGAN, an irrepressible rugby obsessive despite the many well-chronicled humiliations he suffered as a pint-sized army wing, calls it a thinking man's game. "I love watching the little bloke who lives on his wits," he once said. "When I see an outside-half wiggle his hips and leave some nasty big bugger face down in the mud, I always say to myself: 'Christ, I'd give anything to be able to do that.' There is a special glory about the triumph of brain over brawn."
In common with everyone else who cares about the future of the union code, Spike will be contemplating the imminent loss of some of that glory. If the great No 10s are the philosopher kings of the 15-man game, Michael Lynagh has been its Socrates for the last decade and a half. And rather like Socrates, he knows the time has finally arrived to make his farewells and disappear into the twilight. He will retire at the end of the season and there will be no comebacks.
"It's the right moment to go," he says in tones that seem to mirror his entire approach to rugby: quiet, precise, emphatic. "I'm in decent shape, but I'm not as quick or as capable as I was and the physical demands are increasing almost by the week. I've been at this game a long time and while I've drawn on whatever knowledge and wisdom I may have accumulated to cut a few corners and keep myself out of trouble, the hits seem to get bigger every time I play.
"I've never wanted to hang in there just for the sake of it. When I look at some of the guys back home, I see people who just can't give the game away. If my memory serves me right, David Campese first announced his retirement in 1991. He's retired every year since and he's still in the process of retiring now. Perhaps he'll never retire. I come at it from the other direction. I've spent a great deal of time thinking this through - it's an important step and one I wanted to get absolutely right - and the decision is final. I'm not the sort to take enjoyment from getting worse at something rather than better."
There are legions of play-making stand-offs who would give their eye teeth for the privilege of "getting worse" Lynagh-style. Dick Best, a former England coach not given to cheap compliments or insincere adulation, still refers to the 34-year-old Queenslander as a "mastermind" and it is a measure of the man's all-encompassing influence that Saracens' bold pursuit of a scarcely credible league and cup double should rest so squarely on his Wallaby shoulders.
From the moment he entered the British rugby consciousness as a 20-year- old midfield prodigy with Andrew Slack's watershed Wallaby side of 1984, Lynagh became one of the yardsticks by which professional discipline and reliability were judged. Rarely, if ever, has he allowed his standards of behaviour and performance to slip. But life's slings and arrows can afflict the most self-possessed of characters and a little over two weeks ago, he found his assumptions and certainties cruelly undermined.
"A cyst-type growth developed on my groin and after initially thinking it would just disappear with time, I decided to get it checked out. My doctor spotted something else there, something he couldn't identify, and that was when the alarm, the insecurity, set in. I had no real problem with playing the big Saracens-Newcastle game [a match in which Lynagh dropped a regal winning goal in the final minute] but I was a little flat afterwards because of the impending surgery.
"I left the ground pretty early and the next 24 hours were difficult for me. Everyone seemed to be saying 'Well done against Newcastle, best of luck for the run-in' and I was thinking 'Luck? You don't know how much luck I might need'. Thankfully, the case is closed and I'm absolutely fine. It was not an experience I would wish on anyone, but it was instructive in a sense. I guess the trick is to take as many positive things as you can from a situation, even if it is a bad one."
Much of Lynagh's experience has been of a richness beyond the wildest dreams of a sports-crazy youngster from Brisbane; he has done it all umpteen times over, but he still considers it a privilege to play a game he continues to hold in awe. "When I tell you that rugby has allowed me to live comfortably and enjoyably in three very different cultures - Australia, Italy and here in London - and that I met my wife, Isobella, and many of my closest friends because of it, you'll understand me when I say that the sport owes me nothing. I still find it difficult to get my head around a passport with the words 'rugby player' on it. That seems wrong, somehow. Rugby has been a pretty demanding way of life, but it was my choice and I've always derived enormous satisfaction from it.
"Back in the amateur days, especially, there were players who took the attitude that the game owed them a living. I remember a prop forward in Queensland, a plumber by trade, going into the Australian Rugby Union and saying: 'I can't work all day long and then go training. Can't you find me a nice comfortable job?' Asked what he might consider comfortable, he said: 'Merchant banking, or a job like Lynagh's. I don't know what the hell he does, but he looks bloody well on it.' "
Actually, Lynagh worked hard and successfully in the commercial real estate business, a line he will return to in London this summer. He intends to maintain close links with Saracens - "I love the club, I have huge admiration for the imaginative way they've embraced professionalism and I'll always be there for them, either on the end of a phone or down at the ground should they need me" - but he has no immediate designs on a coaching role. "I have a business life to think about and it won't grow on its own. It will take time, commitment and energy. All the things I've poured into rugby for the best part of 20 years.
"Rugby at the top level takes everything you have to offer, which is why I believe totally in the basic principle of players being paid to play. Having said that, the game has changed so radically that when I look back on my beginnings in the Wallaby side, I see a magic and mystique that perhaps we're in the process of losing. That 1984 tour of Britain and Ireland was the last of its kind - a long, round-the-houses Grand Slam campaign - and as such, it was a special experience, one that will always live with me.
"Funnily enough, I recently saw a television re-run of the '84 Test against Wales and I couldn't believe what I was watching. The game seemed so slow, the players so small, the pitch so open and filled with space. There was an innocence about it, too; the opposition were seriously shocked when we took the field with four genuine line-out forwards, all over 6ft 4in. Nowadays, those are pretty average dimensions for a back five forward. They're taller, heavier and much, much faster and when you're a 12-stone stand-off in his 35th year, it's no joke.
"It's always been a hard old game, but it knocks holes in you nowadays. People say there are too many Tests and I must admit that '84 might not seem quite so special had the Wallabies toured in '83, '85 and '86 as well, but international rugby is driven by different forces in the professional age and players are going to have to find ways of living with those forces.
"What I would say is that English domestic rugby has too many competitions and I think there's a logic to combining the Premiership and cup tournaments and organising a knock-out climax involving the top four or five sides, much as we do in Australia. Even then, though, you forfeit a little magic. Part of me will always respond to a tiny village club taking a swipe at one of the big boys and that is the beauty of the cup."
While Lynagh intends to play in Sarries' last Premiership match on Thursday week, it is this Saturday's Tetley's Bitter Cup final with Wasps that provides him with his last great stage. The first all-London showpiece in the 26-year history of knock-out competition in England could hardly be bettered as a valedictory vehicle for so accomplished and respected a figure; noteworthy features include a sell-out crowd of 78,000, a television audience in his native Australia and a silver pot to play for. God is in his heaven, clearly. Lynagh's last meaningful appearance at Twickenham was in 1991 when the Wallabies, captained by his close friend and half- back partner Nick Farr-Jones, edged out England in a low-scoring World Cup final. "If you want to talk rugby highs, it goes without saying that I place that day right up there on top of the heap," he says. But in retrospect, was it all downhill from that point on? How does a world champion react positively to the achievement of the ultimate?
"I know Nick felt a little empty, almost sad, at the thought that there was nothing left to aim for, but he'd just got married and was generally in a different situation. I never thought for a moment that there was no further purpose to playing rugby. There was a tremendous amount to play for and enjoy; we lorded it over the All Blacks for a while, which was well worth the effort, and the 1992 game in South Africa, our first for 21 years, was quite something. And from a personal point of view, I went on to captain my country.
"There are a lot of moments I'm going to treasure, not all of them associated with victory. I don't think I ever felt so devastated at losing a game as I did in 1987, when the French turned us over at the death in the semi- final of the first World Cup. There had been a massive assumption - not by the players, perhaps, but certainly by the Australian public - that we would make the final and the sense of failure was almost too much to bear. Now, though, I can appreciate the game for what it was: a classic contest. By coincidence, Philippe Sella played and scored for France that day and now we're club-mates at Saracens. We still talk about that match - or rather, he still tells me about it."
A life without rugby lies just ahead, then; a cavernous hole to fill. How will Lynagh set about keeping the juices flowing and the competitive flame alive? "Well, it's possible I'll have a crack at the London Marathon next April, although one of my friends found himself being overtaken by a bloke dressed as an egg during this year's race and if that happened to me, I'm not sure I'd survive the psychological damage.
"And then there's cricket. Village cricket. I'm dead keen to spend a summer playing for some local team somewhere. Unfortunately, Isobella isn't quite the cricketing sort, being Italian. While I was watching one of the Tests on television last summer, she asked: 'Mike, does anything ever happen in this game?' When I informed her of the fact that Australia had just declared, she looked relieved. 'Thank God for that,' she said. 'What did they say?' "Reuse content